The Olympics have long provided a prime opportunity for the world's political grievances to be aired, particularly in the form of protests and boycotts. But these efforts, it turns out, have rarely made a difference when it comes to driving political change. Even the largest Olympic boycott in history led to no significant change on the political issues of the time. So why are the Olympics, including the upcoming 2014 Sochi winter games, still so hotly politicized today?
As early as 1908, Irish athletes expressed their anger at Great Britain's refusal to give Ireland its independence by boycotting the Olympic games in London, but the British crown remained steadfast on the issue. The U.S. also snubbed the British crown that year, when the American captain famously refused to dip its flag to Britain's King Edward VII and proclaimed defiantly, "This flag dips to no earthly king." The snub generated some controversy at the time, but has continued as a cheeky historical tradition to this day.
Perhaps the most controversial games unsurprisingly took place in 1936 in Berlin, when the international community was hosted by Nazi-controlled Germany. A number of Jewish athletes boycotted the games, but the U.S. chose to participate (that year's games are, in fact, remembered as a highlight for African American U.S. athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals).
Middle Eastern states boycotted Austrailia's 1956 Olympics simply because they wanted to make a statement about their European neighbors, Britain and France, who were invading the Suez Canal. And in Munich in 1972, protests turned to bloodshed when "Black September" terrorist gunmen murdered 11 Israeli athletes. The games paused to hold a memorial, and then continued.
But the Soviet Union served as a particular thorn in the Olympic community's side. In 1980, 62 countries including the U.S. led the most significant Olympic boycott ever during the Moscow Olympics, particularly to push back against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.
This was history's most significant Olympic boycott. And, it turns out, it had essentially no impact on Soviet policy in Afghanistan (or elsewhere). The Cold War raged on, and the USSR remained defiant. America's foe simply retaliated by leading an Eastern Bloc boycott of the following games, abstaining from the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics.
Beijing also presented opportunities to bring politics into the Olympics, as countries from all over the world raised grievances about various Chinese policies. But international rumblings over the games made no noticeable impact on the status of human rights in China, and the games went forward without significant boycotts. And obviously,people all over the world have used the Sochi 2014 winter games as an opportunity to protest Russia's social policies, particularly its anti-gay laws (prompting, of course, no change in Russian policy).
Efforts to turn the international athletic event into a political stage, it seems, have almost always turned out to be purely symbolic in nature. Little, if anything, has changed from a long and never-ending history of politicized Olympic rumblings.
This is not to say that the multi-billion-dollar Olympic Games cannot be leveraged as a significant political tool. The games put a rare spotlight on global opinions of the time and tend to focus international attention on important human-rights issues. And the unique international nature of the event helps bring together and amplify the voices of people from across the world. But for the most part, it's hard to muster the international consensus needed to turn the games into a powerful political tool, and such efforts can also harm athletes themselves — suggesting that politicizing the games is rarely worthwhile when it comes to effecting real political change.