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Top Ten Politicized Olympic Moments in History

by Faith Eischen, published

The 2012 London Summer Olympic Games will officially begin July 27th. The games have always insinuated national pride and excitement worldwide. In some ways countries’ have historically symbolized national power and strength in terms of prized athletes and the number of medals won. Despite conflict, war, and other political movements, the Olympics have continued to be a forum of global unity. However, with the global proximity the Olympics promotes, at times, the games have incited or even exacerbated global tensions amidst countries and nationalities.

Here is a list of top ten politicized Olympic moments:

1. 1936 Berlin, Germany Summer Olympics

In 1936, Germany hosted the Summer Olympic Games. The host country’s new leader, Adolph Hitler, wanted to ensure that his Third Reich was perceived by the international community as an emerging super power. However, when American Jesse Owens won four gold medals and broke two world records, Hitler saw the American track star’s super success as a blow to the German national image. Jesse Owens' Olympic success shattered the German plan, as well as reflected his success to the United States.

2. 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics

The 1968 Summer Olympics took place in the midst of the United States Civil Rights Movement. In honor of the Black Power Movement, Tommie Smith gold medalist in the 200m and John Carols, silver medalist in the 200m, gave the “black power” salute on the Olympic podium upon receiving their medals. Their actions were met with much negativity following the games. The Olympians received death threats and were shunned by United States’ sports establishment for many years.

3. 1972 Munich, Germany Summer Olympics

The Munich games were the first Olympic games held in Germany since the 1936 games. Germany wished to host the summer Olympic games with positive connotations and wanted to project an image of the country that shared little resemblance to the 1936 games. Despite efforts, the Munich games were forever tainted by the assassination of eleven Israeli athletes by a Palestinian terrorist group, called Black September. The murders were considered an international tragedy.

4. 1980 New York, United States Winter Olympics

The 1980 Winter Olympics was held during the intense Cold War era. The United States and the Soviet Olympic hockey teams were set to play for the gold medal. Considered one of the biggest upsets in sports history, the young United States hockey team was down 3-2 after the second period, but came back and won the game with a final score of 4-3. Close sports games are usually emotional for both athletes and fans, but the combination of the under-dog performance of the U.S. hockey team and the intensity of the Cold War, heightened emotions and marked a historic win. Al Michaels, who reported the game, famously said after the win, “Do you believe in miracles. YES!”

5. 1980 Moscow, Russia Summer Olympics

The 1980 summer games in Moscow also took place during the Cold War. In protest, the United States opted out of participating in Summer Olympics because of the high tensions between the two countries.

6. 1984 Los Angeles, United States Summer Olympics

In response to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics, the Soviet Union decided not to participate in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The reason most likely was to make a stance against the United States’ boycott back in 1980.

7. 1996 Atlanta, United States Summer Olympics

Right before the 1996 Summer Olympics, Rolando Arrojo, a talented Cuban baseball player disappointed Cuban citizens when he decided to defect from his Cuban baseball team and his country to join the United States. Cuba, who does not have the best reputation among the international community, has unfortunately dealt with many talented athletes defecting to other countries in order to receive expensive sports contracts and deals.

8. 2004 Athens, Greece Summer Olympics

Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, was head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee. It is reported at the time he was a member of the committee, that Hussein would torture athletes who did not perform to expected standards. Sports Illustrated reported the State Department claim that “after a loss Uday forced the volleyball team, which was made up of taller athletes, to remain in a room he had constructed with a five-foot-high ceiling. He built the room so small that not all of them could sit at the same time. The only way they could fit was by having half of them standing and leaning over while the other half were sitting with their knees in their chests. He considered this a motivational technique.” Before the 2004 games, torture equipment was revealed to journalists and received lots of media exposure.

9. 2008 Beijing, China Summer Olympics

NGOs, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for international boycotts of the Beijing Olympics because of  accusations against the Chinese on violating the human rights of Tibetans. The Chinese government has maintained a strict stance against Tibetan calls for independence from China’s rule. China had promised the International Olympic Committee that human rights would improve if they were allowed to host the 2008 Olympics. Just before the Olympics were set to start, China was accused of allowing the humans rights situation in Tibet to worsen.

10. 2012 London, England Summer Olympics

In June, Saudi Arabia announced the king would allow Saudi Arabian female athletes to participate in the upcoming London Olympics. It is rumored that the decision was made out of fear, because the IOC threatened to disqualify the country for gender discrimination. Although the Saudi Arabian public mostly disapproves of the lift on the ban, government officials assured that if qualified, women would “dress to preserve their dignity.” Meaning women must wear the hijab and loose fitting athletic gear. The decision is a huge milestone for women in the country, and is expected to boost Saudi Arabia’s international image.

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