The Politics of the Olympic Games

To many, the Olympic Games are a break from the turmoil of living in a world with so much conflict.  To others, it is a prime time to bring matters up.  Both of these value the large media exposure and large gathering of countries as a time to express political beliefs. Political forces on the Olympics are nothing new, and the political distortion of the games could be described as Huizinga’s worst nightmare because they politicize what was formerly an arena for just athletics.  Using the examples of Tibetan independence and Palestinian statehood, we will look into the political blanket put over the Olympic games and how the games’ innocence is being lost.  

Beijing Olympic Stadium

The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were used as a premier time for the Chinese government to showcase its positive qualities during perhaps the largest and most extravagant opening ceremonies in Olympic games history.  However, this uninterrupted show by the Chinese government did more than just announce to the world that China can do more than deny rights to Tibetans and manufacture Nike shoes at a low price.  It was able to take the focus of the world away from the preceding media storm over Tibetan separatists.  During the torch relay, police in multiple locations had to control large groups of protesters wanting to “free Tibet” from the oppression of the Chinese government.  These protests have been described as the largest Tibetan protests in twenty years.  This response to the worldwide exposure is a contradiction of Huizinga’s description of play because it brings politics and discourse to what was originally supposed to be an event to appreciate the beautiful innocence of sports.

If the Olympics have become the opposite of what they were intended, than the Israeli-Palestinian massacre during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich are perhaps the pinnacle of the argument.  During “Black September“, seventeen, mostly Israelis, were killed in an attack by Palestinian terrorists.  This drew a dark curtain over the games, and will always overshadow the actual events of the Munich Olympics. Huizinga describes his “magic circle” as the place away from everything else where the games can be played.  However, an event as violent as this cannot be ignored and certainly affected the games.  The Olympics have stopped being a coming together of states where politics are left behind.  Instead, it just gives the world a lens with which to see conflicts between states with sports being played at the same time.

Consequently, every two years the world is given a special opportunity.  Although there is violence, discourse, and protesting, the Olympic Games bring issues to a worldwide audience unlike before.  Many in the United States would not know of the Tibetan protests if not for the widespread media coverage that follows the games and the politics associated with them.  Maybe Huizinga’s “Magic Circle” isn’t the best place to have the world’s largest sporting event, because the days of amateur competition on a large scale is over.  All sports already have world championships or at least a premier league that showcases the best athletes competing against one another.  The Olympics no longer do that, nor are they called to.  The Olympics have become political, and as long as they happen every two years, save unnecessary violence, they will act as a time for issues to be presented to the world without the power structure of arenas such as the UN.  The games are no longer in isolation, but Mr. Huizinga, it’s 2014, why should they be?

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3 thoughts on “The Politics of the Olympic Games

  1. Jonathan,

    I completely agree with your argument regarding the Olympics. The olympics are a bi-yearly occurrence that bring together and unite nations. The olympics provide a sense of nationalism throughout each and every country. This nationalism is created through the competitive nature of the olympics, as well as the underlying political issues between countries. The political tensions between countries add to the extremely competitive atmosphere. The olympics are ultimately high stake, competitive events that are played for the pride of the country.
    The competitiveness and nationalism involved in the olympics both contradict Huizinga’s argument. However, without this atmosphere the true meaning and spirit behind the olympics would not be the same. The olympics are more than just spectacular athletes competing against each other. These world class athletes are willing to do whatever it takes for their country. The nature of the Olympics allow for the greatness of the event and prove that Huizinga is wrong on his view of play in this circumstance.

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  2. Hi Jonathan,
    As a huge fan of Olympic Games, I really loved your choice of topic. I totally agree with you on the wide influence outside sports of the Olympics, and you did a great job backing up your point with evidences. Just as Abhi pointed out, the Olympics probably never intend to be only a “game” as Huizinga defines it from the start.
    Once we acknowledge that the Olympic Games are more than sports, we cannot ignore the question of why they choose to use sports as a way to bring countries and nations together. Sports play an important role in the international political and cultural interactions during the games, so there are definitely certain characteristics of sports that can overcome cultural and ideological differences. As a result, sports act as a mediation and an opportunity for people to recognize and communicate with each other.
    Last but not least, since the athletes are playing for the honor of their countries/nations, they would always try to do their best. Therefore, although politics are deeply involved in the games, Olympics are still a precious chance for both athletes and spectators to enjoy the pure beauty of sports. In fact, I don’t think the spectators or athletes would have a chance think about politics when they are enjoying the games

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  3. Hey John,

    Really cool article about the Olympics, thought it was interesting how you compared it to our course readings. One thing I’d like to point out however is that I don’t think the Olympics ever fit Huizinga’s “magic circle.” The origin of the Olympics were obviously in the Greek system of competition. An example of this is in our reading of the “Funeral Games of Patroclus.” Even in this primitive stage the games were always more about the games. Achilleus organized the games as a showcase to honor the most talented. Furthermore, the greatest debate in these games were not the results of the events but the prizes awarded based on the athlete’s art of diplomacy. The first modern olympic games in 1896 were done with the goal of bringing nations, not just athletes together. And this has been a goal of the IOC since its inception. That is why political conflicts and protests are always intertwined with the Olympics. It’s part and parcel of the event. So I agree that this does not fit Huizinga’s “Magic Circle” but I dont think it ever has!

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