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When did Americans start booing … Americans?
Sure, boo-birds are a feature of sports fandom; they can be found in every stadium, at every sports bar, in front of every television. But the open jeering of 2021 U.S. Olympic athletes appears to be unprecedented. Last week, former President Donald Trump actually celebrated the defeat of the American women’s soccer team and urged his followers to do the same. Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield cooed his “pleasure” over the defeat of the American men’s basketball team by France. And revanchist elements of the hard-right commentariat rose to savage gymnast Simone Biles as a “quitter” and “selfish sociopath” after she withdrew from some events.
Trash-talking of American Olympians by Americans cuts hard against the grain. For politicians and pundits, extravagant praise of Olympians has always been an easy default move. Thank you for representing your country in the, uh, canoe slalom! You brought us all together with your courage and performance!
But to come out actively against them?
It might seem a little strange or unpatriotic to tee off on the athletes representing your country (not to mention racist, in the case of the slaps at Biles and the “woke” NBA players), but it’s not even close to being against the “spirit of the Olympics.” In fact, it’s consistent with the politicization of the modern games, which goes back to their beginnings. If you start to think of the Olympics less as an athletic competition and more as a quadrennial international political convention, the cheap shots and settling of partisan points are only the latest domestic twist in the Games’ long history as a political arena—charged by our newly acidic politics and amplified a thousandfold by social media and sensation-seeking cable news shows.
The modern games were fairly apolitical when they started in 1896, attracting an all-male cast of competitors from 12 nations. Only one country, Hungary, even sent a national team. But it didn’t take long for the Olympics to turn into a politically charged display of nationalism from which it never really recovered. Medalist Peter O’Connor, in 1906, protested having to compete under the British flag by scaling a 20-foot flag pole to wave the Irish flag in place of the Union Jack. The Russians, then occupiers of Finland, tried to prevent the Finns from flying their own flag that year. And the British fumed when the American team refused to dip the U.S. flag in salute to King Edward VII.
Since then, political controversy has won gold at nearly every Olympics. Athletes from Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey were stricken from the 1920 invitation list over their countries’ role in World War I. A Swedish skater refused to perform to German music in the same games. Adolf Hitler commandeered the 1936 games to demonstrate his belief in Aryan superiority—prominent Americans called for a U.S. pullout from Berlin because, as they correctly predicted, Hitler would use them for propagandistic gain. (His master race was shown up mightily by America’s Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals.) Germans and Japanese athletes—who didn’t start World War II—were forced to sit out the 1948 games as national punishment. In the 1950s and '60s, nations almost too numerous to list boycotted the games over geopolitics or were excluded by the International Olympic Committee for political reasons, including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Indonesia, North Korea and South Africa.
In 1968, runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith threw up Black power fists from the Olympic podium. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard,” Smith told Smithsonian. According to The Associated Press, the IOC was so knocked off-kilter by Carlos and Smith, it didn’t get around to officially banning such overt demonstrations by athletes until 1975! The most horrifying collision of politics and the Olympics came four years later in Munich when the terrorist organization Black September murdered 11 Israelis they had taken hostage in the Olympic Village. The IOC, blinding itself to the politics of the rampage, treated the assassinations like a very long rain delay and restarted the games 34 hours later. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (A Polish gold medalist in the pole vault gave the “up yours” sign with his fist and arm to jeering Soviet fans.) The Soviets reciprocated the American gesture by no-showing the 1984 Los Angeles games.
And that’s not to mention the absurd theater, nearly all political, of actually hosting the Olympics. Countries cynically use the games to plump the reputations of the people in power, almost always spending money they don’t have to construct an Olympics infrastructure that starts to rot on the day the torch is extinguished. One of their first acts is to sweep the streets of homeless people and other “undesirables” who might spoil the video background.
Political counterprogramming has become its own Olympic sideshow, as the residents of the hosting countries turn the games into a suitable international forum for their political grievances. Dozens of athletes have defected from their home countries during the games and continue to do the same at Tokyo. Terrorist Eric Rudolph repurposed the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as an anti-abortion “political protest” by detonating a bomb designed to kill innocents at Centennial Olympic Park. Nearly every edition of the games in the past half-century has been tainted by hideous cost overruns and runaway financial corruption. One politician, Mitt Romney, earned his national political cred by righting the tottering Salt Lake games of 2002. In Colorado, Richard Lamm, later governor, earned his reputation for thrift and good governance by running the 1976 winter games out of his state for being too expensive.
As the Olympic clock strikes 2021, the biggest surprise isn’t that political figures are “negging” the home team for political gain, but that it took so long for them to figure out this cynical new way to capitalize on the political value of the Olympics. Properly viewed, the Olympics isn’t just a nationalistic event, it’s a conflict multiplier that countries use against other countries—or against their own people. It’s a place where athletes can enter the argument, and as Tommie Smith hoped, can really be heard. It’s a contentious international assembly; a place of flag-waving and grudge rematches; a venue for power plays and a launching pad for asylum requests.
This year, some of the athletes have put as much pre-Olympics planning into their protests as they have into their events. According to U.S. shot-putter medalist Raven Saunders, who threw up an X with her arms on the awards podium (to represent “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet,” as she explained it), athletes planned their demonstrations. But she applied sounder ethical thinking to her demonstration than some of the pols and pundits did to their opinionating: She deliberately waited until the Chinese national anthem concluded before making her gesture. “I wanted to be respectful of the national anthem being played,” Saunders said.
When the Summer Games land in Paris in 2024, maybe protesting and dissing your own team should become official Olympic events. And by then, we’ll all probably feel free to join in.
Send gold medals to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts never protest anything. My Twitter feed remembers the Rome Olympics, which were held in black and white. My RSS feed craves an Olympia beer right now.
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated Richard Lamm's first name.
CLARIFICATION: The original wording of this column mistakenly implied that Richard Lamm was governor when Colorado chased the Olympics out of the state.