Social Activism in the Olympic Games

In the 9th century BCE, the “Ekecheiria”, or the Olympic truce, was a time period when the  ancient Greeks created a temporary peace; they put down their weapons and allowed athletes, families and spectators to have safe travel to and from the site of the Olympic games. The Olympics were to be a time to celebrate sport, and a time to have peace between warring city-states.

Over two thousand years later, some Olympic spectators believe that there is no room for politics at the games– that the athletes should show allegiance only to their sport, and leave their political and personal opinions our of the arena. The IOC themselves in rule number 50, state that “No form of advertising or other publicity shall be allowed in and above the stadia, venues and other competition areas which are considered as part of the Olympic sites. Commercial installations and advertising signs shall not be allowed in the stadia, venues or other sports grounds.” This rule is an attempt “to prevent the Games from being used as a platform for protests, demonstrations or the promotion of political, religious or racial propaganda.”

Yet throughout history, the Olympics have set an international platform for political activism.   18 Times Politics Trumped Sport in the Olympic Games History includes a timeline of politics in the Olympic arena, and   A Not So Brief History of Politics and the Olympics explores a history of social issues such  gender, race, and LGBTQ, as well as the issues surrounding the geography of the games themselves, and boycotts.

In the article 7 Of the Most Memorable Olympic Protests in History we see a wide range of political activity, ranging from 1906, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish long jumper, wanted only to wave an independent Irish flag, to Jewish athletes boycotting Hitler’s 1936 games, to the Cold War Boycotts in 1980 when the US persuaded more than 60 countries to boycott the games.

In her recent article, Athletes Don’t Have to Win Gold To Make a Statement, Amy Bass, author and history Professor, explores contemporary protests in sports such as the “Take a Knee” movement in the NFL, openly gay US skier Gus Kenworthy critiquing Pence, Lindsay Vonn’s politically charged words against Trump, and concludes that, “Rather than worry about who may or may not take a proverbial knee with a medal around their neck, maybe we need to understand that protest is the best of us and US — taking a stand, expressing an opinion and bringing home the gold.”

The history of protest and activism in sports allows for many engaging questions with youth:

What is the role of sports in a society?

Should athletes be involved in protest, or should they only perform in their sport?

Are athletes change makers in society?

Should athletes be sensitive to the views of their paying fans?

How does the nationalism of the Olympics both divide and connect people?