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How geopolitics casts its long shadow over the Olympics

Over the past decades, the Olympic Games have been, in addition to sporting events, become avenues for geopolitical messaging as well

July 21, 2021 / 12:19 PM IST
A view of the Olympic Rings installed on a floating platform with the Rainbow Bridge in the background in preparation for the event (Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski)

A view of the Olympic Rings installed on a floating platform with the Rainbow Bridge in the background in preparation for the event (Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski)

The Olympic Games is the epitome of a global village, a sense of communal bonhomie, bringing together eclectic mix of individuals from every nation in a display of triumph, endurance, passion while cherishing the ideals of sportsmanship, compassion and camaraderie.

The symbols speak for themselves with the Olympic Torch representing ‘peace, unity and friendship’, and the symbol of the five rings representing the five continents.

Yet with regard to the Tokyo games, the Olympics hasn’t entirely mitigated geopolitical tensions; it has inadvertently presented it on a grandiose spectacle.

Power Equations

From the inaugural games in 1896 in Athens to 1936, the venues were all in the West, between the United States and Western Europe, matching hubris with hosts. Sports diplomacy was superseded by supreme politics and was well noted in the infamous 1936 Berlin games, where Nazi Germany’s fascism was on full display with Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ accentuating Nazi propaganda. Seminally, the 1936 Games is remembered for the look of incredulity on Adolf Hitler’s face as African-American athlete Jesse Owens won gold medals, busting the myth of Aryan supremacy.


The first games since the restart was in London in 1948, where World War II antagonists Germany and Japan were not invited. The onset of the Cold War had begun, and the Soviet Union was invited, but Moscow refused to send a team.

Down Under

With the 1956 Games being held in Melbourne, Australia, Olympics went down under geographically and geopolitically.

West Asian politics made its first appearance with the Suez Crisis as Israel invaded the Sinai Peninsula in October of 1956, prompting Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq to boycott the Games. In Europe, the Cold War had begun and would cast its shadow over the Games for the next five decades or so.

The same year, the Soviet Union army invaded Budapest, Hungary, just prior to the Games, casting a sword of Damocles on the mood in the Hungarian camp. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland pulled out of the Games in protest. Hungary stayed on and came face-to-face with the Soviet Union in an intense water polo face-off that saw physical altercations, and now infamously dubbed as ‘Blood in the Water’.

Protests And Tensions

The 1968 Games saw the first sign of protests for racial discrimination as US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos immortalised their 200-meter podium finish with their fists clenched and raised to the sky, protesting US’ treatment of black citizens.

Tragedy struck in Munich in 1972, as 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Black September. Cold War tensions meant no warm ties as the US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games and the USSR returned the favour for the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Display Of Might

The 2008 Beijing Games was seminal not just for Usain Bolt’s athletic prowess or Michael Phelps’ aquatic exploits, but for the aplomb, in which China announced to the world, that it was Pax Sinica reborn, as the US saw the collapse of the financial system, which had global ramifications. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had always cautioned to hide one’s strength and bide one’s time. Beijing had hidden long enough.

It’s not just the Summer Games, the Winter Games too have a frosty effect. Russian President Vladimir Putin perhaps took a cue out of Beijing’s playbook and brought the 2014 winter Games to Sochi. Moscow was reinventing itself as a great world power, and perhaps machinations of Crimea’s annexation was in store. The earlier public relations effort would help. The Games cost a whopping $50billion, something that former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev wanted to avoid before the 1980 Games.

Hosting sporting spectacles is seen as a part of a country’s nation building. In the last 12 years, Beijing hosted the 2008 Games, South Africa the 2010 World Cup, Russia with the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup, and Brazil hosted the 2014 World Cup, with Rio de Janeiro with the 2016 Games.

If Putin’s splurge saw no pushback from Russians, it had the opposite effect in Brazil. The sporting events were held to project the South American’s country as leading the global south in Latin America. However, the Rio Olympics seem to have had the opposite impression. The impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and what Brazilians saw as profligacy for both World Cup Venues and the Olympic Games sparked nationwide protests, as violence ensued.

The Tokyo Games

The Olympics had been interrupted by two World Wars, ploughed through an extended Cold War, throw in a Spanish Flu and perhaps a second pandemic that halted or disrupted the pattern. The Tokyo 2020 Games are being played in 2021. This was supposed to be then Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s trump card, as he played a crucial part in bringing the games to Tokyo, was hoping to avoid any recession, and fight off early signs of economic weariness due to the pandemic.

However, Abe and the IOC had to listen to the WHO and postpone the Games by a year, and in the Land of the Rising Sun, the sun set on Abe’s political career, as he resigned and made way for successor Yoshihide Suga.

At a kernel level, the Games are about grandiosity, competitiveness and a global display, all fertile conditions for geopolitical machinations or just subtle public relations. The honour gained from medals at the Games mixed with geopolitical innuendos and covert messaging can be both a matter of pride and prejudice.
Akshobh Giridharadas is a Washington DC-based former journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Jul 21, 2021 12:19 pm

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