The Olympics: Boycotts, Free Big Macs And Fascism
By Bobby B. Wheel
SB Nation, August 4, 2012
Jul 24, 2012 – On Monday, Robert B. Wheel examined the long, nasty and corrupt history of the Olympics with Part 1 of his series, from the beginning of the Modern Games in 1896, to a near disaster in Detroit in 1968. Tuesday, Part 2 takes us through the Games of the past 40 years, with (even more!) boycotts and corruption, and brings us up to the 2012 Summer Olympics, where plenty could go wrong.
1972: Historian Francis Fukuyama said the end of the Cold War was the End of History, as liberal democracy was now the only viable form of government. What he didn’t account for was that in some areas of the world, tribalism trumps ideology and tribalist societies see democracy as a proxy for ethnic rivalries.
Munich was supposed to be the Peace Games, an expo of a liberal democratic postwar Germany. But tribalism, in the form of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reared its ugly head when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists.
Our old friend Avery Brundage was still head of the IOC (even though he had competed in the games 60 years earlier) and he decided that the games should go on. Many people believed that Brundage’s decision helped save the Games, but others thought it was insensitive to the Israeli delegation and the families of the dead athletes. But Brundage was never one to be sensitive to Jewish concerns.
1976: The 1976 Games are most remarkable because they were an absolute disaster for Montreal. The city fell behind on construction and had to take out onerous loans to be ready in time for the games. The Olympic Stadium was a white elephant, it looked weird, was not a great venue and ended up costing the city 1.61 billion Canadian dollars, more than 10 times the initial projections. So when the Expos wanted a new stadium, you can understand why the city was loath to give them a new one. If not for the Olympic Stadium boondoggle, Bryce Harper might have said “c’est une question de bouffon, bro.”
Oh, and in case you were wondering how little people actually cared about the Winter Olympics, Denver was originally picked to host the Games but they had to issue an extra bond because of cost overruns. The bond issue had to go before the state of Colorado (to be fair, many Coloradans didn’t live near proposed Olympic venues) and it was rejected with almost 60 percent of the vote. Considering what happened in Montreal, this was most likely the right decision, and the guy who spearheaded the campaign against the bond issue was later elected governor.
Also, Denver has a Major League Baseball team today.
1980: Once again the Winter Olympics return to the U.S. and once again we care about them. This was, of course, the Miracle on Ice games, which lifted our country’s spirits and ensured Jimmy Carter’s re-election. Wait, never mind.
Carter also decided to pull the U.S. delegation from the 1980 Moscow Summer Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets stayed there for nine years, once again proving the efficacy of an Olympic boycott. Remarkably, only 80 countries, less than half of the IOC, participated in these games. For the past few Summer Olympiads the IOC has had near 100 percent attendance. It’s a stunning reminder of just how far we have come in realizing Olympic boycotts are pointless.
1984: The Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles Games because of American “chauvinism.” Whatever that is, I’m sure it’s still around. The boycott led to a hilarious failed promotional campaign by McDonald’s, which offered a free Big Mac whenever the U.S. won a gold medal. Since America won many events traditionally dominated by Eastern bloc countries, McDonald’s got soaked and it was Charles Barkley’s favorite Olympics ever because of all the Big Macs.
The U.S. won a ton of gold medals so the Games were considered a success. The man in charge, Peter Ueberroth, ended up getting named commissioner of baseball, but he was forced out in 1989 because he had helped the owners collude to keep player salaries down, a violation of the CBA He later ran for governor of California when Gray Davis was recalled, but he dropped out before the election. The winner of that election, Arnold Schwarzenegger, had once competed in Austrian Olympic weightlifting trials. But the man who came in fourth, Peter Camejo, also competed in yachting events for Venezuela at the 1960 Olympics. He later became a member of the Green Party, putting him well to the left of the yachting community.
Also of note, I was born during this Olympiad, in a breech birth where I had to be taken out with forceps. You were the real gold medalist that summer, Mom.
Carl Lewis receives the baton from team mate Calvin Smith as he anchors the USA team to victory in a new world record time of 37.83 seconds in the 4 x 100m relay (Photo by Tony Duffy/ Getty Images )
1988: Kim Jong il reported that the Summer Olympics in Seoul were a horrible failure and that if North Korea had participated it would have won every event. But North Korea and a few stragglers were the only countries who didn’t participate in this Olympiad. These games were able to avoid the boycotts that had plagued the previous two Summer Olympiads, and participation rates have been robust ever since.
And rather remarkably, the Olympics had a positive effect on the host country. South Korea’s dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan, had originally seen the Games as a way to legitimize his regime, as he had recently come to power after the previous president was assassinated at a dinner party. But pro-democracy protests intensified in 1987, and Chun knew that if he cracked down on protesters then the IOC might take the Games away, having learned its lesson from 1936. Thus, the Games played a role in Chun stepping down and South Korea having direct elections in December 1987. If the Olympics had been awarded to Japan instead, Chun might have felt freer to take a hard line with pro-democracy forces.
Oh and the 1988 Winter Olympics were the Cool Runnings ones. Ein, zwei, drei, y’all.
1992: The games went to Juan Antonio Samaranch’s hometown of Barcelona. Samaranch was an interesting guy, and by “interesting” I mean fascist; he rose to power in the Spanish Olympic Committee under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and remained in power after Spain became a democracy. He was able to keep his post because Spain for the most part forgave its fascists; its Civil War had been especially brutal, pitting families against each other more than even the American Civil War. So Spain did not purge fascists from every post, and Samaranch got to remain its IOC delegate and eventually become IOC chairman.
Barcelona had a good bid for the 1992 Games, but it was going up against Paris, which could also boast a strong profile. So Samaranch threw the 1992 Winter Olympics to Albertville, France, knowing that the IOC would be loath to grant two Olympics to the same country in one year (again, learning the lessons from 1936). The strategy worked.
Also, the big bad Soviets kind of fell apart between the 1988 and 1992 games. So did South Africa’s apartheid government. So the Barcelona games were a pretty happy event, as liberal internationalism seemed to reign and our friend Fukayama boasted that we’d be on easy street from here on out.
And thanks to jamon iberico, these were Charles Barkley’s second favorite Olympics.
1994: The Winter Olympics were tired of being in the shadow of the Summer, so they decided to stagger the Olympiads by two years to allow for higher visibility. Anchorage actually bid for these games, which means Sarah Palin could have had another Glen Rice incident on her hands. But they lost, which is too bad, because these were still the Winter Olympics so nobody cared.
Looks like fun. Bob Martin/ALLSPORT
1996: Spencer Hall, Holly Anderson, Jason Kirk and Jon Bois already covered in detail what the 1996 Olympics meant to Atlanta and the South more generally. The darkest moment was the bombing of Centennial Park by Eric Rudolph. It’s easy to think of terrorism as the sole domain of Arabs right now, but in the mid-90s it was homegrown extremists like Eric Rudolph and Timothy McVeigh who were killing innocent people.
Still, at the end of the Olympics, Samaranch refused to say that the Atlanta Games were the best ever, a departure from his previous practice. Clearly, Mark Richt has lost control of the Olympics,.
1998: For the last time, stop asking me about the damn Winter Olympics.
2000: In 1999, reporters from Sports Illustrated reported that the IOC under Juan Antonio Samaranch had basically been for sale and the Olympics were IOC members’ own personal cash cow. Under international pressure, Samaranch was forced to resign following the 2000 Games. Personally, righteous 16-year-old that I was, I chose to boycott these Games. Again, boycotting the Olympics accomplishes jack shit.
The IOC scandal evinced just how easy international sporting organizations are to corrupt. We have seen this happen with FIFA and CONCACAF as well. If power to control a lot of resources lies in the hands of people with little oversight, then corruption is a natural outcome. It’s like algae growing on a fetid pond. The IOC, however, has cleaned up its act under Jacques Rogge and Dick Pound. That’s his real name, by the way. Dick Pound.
2002: Have you heard that Mitt Romney helped turn these Olympics around? If not, and if you live in a swing state, I’m sure you’ll hear plenty about it between now and November. And he did it in remarkable circumstances. Keep in mind that 9/11 had happened only a few months before an Olympics were to take place in America. A few months after these Olympics I waited in a two-hour line for security at an airport and nobody complained about it because we were so scared of another attack. So yeah, Americans were a bit on edge at the time.
The games passed mostly without incident. The only issue was that a cute Canadian figure skating couple was jobbed by a corrupt judge, but they won a gold medal anyway and got to sing with the Barenaked Ladies so everyone was happy.
2004: With the benefit of hindsight, of course we should have known that the Greeks couldn’t get their act together in time for the Olympics. Many of the venues were barely completed in time and were missing unessential elements. And now those venues are in varying states of disrepair because the Greeks barely have enough money to keep the lights on, let alone maintain a badminton arena. This Olympiad stands as proof that the Games cannot be counted on as a panacea for a country’s woes.
2006: Did the Barenaked Ladies play here? No? Then I don’t care.
2008: So much could have gone wrong in Beijing. There could have been mass human rights protests and crackdowns, marathoners choking on pollution, a nasty dispute with Taiwan or even a dreaded boycott. But none of it happened, and China had a nice coming out party. A month later the global economy collapsed, so this was one of the last times you could watch TV and not see an ad for a payday lender.
Oh, and America cried foul because China was using gymnasts who were too young under Olympic rules but the Chinese produced some fake birth certificates to get their IOC off their case and that was the end of it. This was the last time that a controversy about a birth certificate ever occurred.
2010: Did the Barenaked Ladies play here? What, they did? Oh, neat!
2012: The 2012 Games have their own Mitt Romney. They’re being run by Sebastian Coe, a former Conservative MP who lost his seat in the Tony Blair landslide but, perhaps more importantly, is a also former Olympic track medalist. And much like the Beijing Games, there is plenty that could go wrong. London had riots last year and a terrorist attack in 2005. Its mayor is a blowhard who is bound to say something stupid in the next month. Saudi Arabia refuses to send female athletes, but the last thing the IOC wants to do is provoke Islamic extremists.
But what we do know is that the London Olympics have been, and will remain, a political football. We will be told that they are a triumph of internationalism and brotherhood, but we will know that the games are a product of political fighting and maneuvering. Watch and enjoy the games (you can try to pretend water polo is football if you squint hard enough) but don’t buy the hype that you’re being fed.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Games Organising Committee, talks to a child dressed up as a flame. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)