Every two years, the world gathers for the Olympic Games, meant to unite all races, religions, creeds, colors, nations, and people. Starting in 776 BC, the Olympics, which occurred every four years, brought together competitors from every Greek city-state, in competition with each other, for grand supremacy in sport. But while today the focus tends to fall on the sports and athletes, the ideals of the Olympiad, both in ancient times and today, ring throughout time. Wars were put on hold, armies marched home, and then those same warring nations came together to compete in track, field, wrestling, and other competitions.
In the modern Olympics, which began in 1896 under the purview of the International Olympic Committee, who still runs the games to this day, athletes representing every corner of the globe still gather to challenge one another, and stand for their respective nations, before all the world. This creates a fantastic international public relations opportunity for the competing nations and for the concept of peace in our time. However, the modern Olympics also have been pulled into modern politics, with PR being as big of a part of the games as the events themselves. Though most Olympiads still speak to the game’s original higher purpose, there have been many times in the last 117 years that a political or social statement has been made, using the Olympics as a staging ground.
The first major boycott was Ireland at the 1936 Berlin games, because the IOC required them to limit their entrants only to the “Irish Free State.” The 1956 games saw three separate boycotts, due to the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, the Suez Crisis, and China’s refusal to participate because of the committee allowing Taiwan to participate under the banner of “Republic of China.” The largest boycotts came in 1980 and 1984. The 1980 games, held in Moscow, were boycotted by 65 nations, due to the Soviets invading Afghanistan. Four years later, 15 nations held a counter-boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
The games have also known violence and war’s impact on the Olympiad. Though in ancient times, societies put aside their fighting to compete, the modern Olympics have often been postponed or cancelled due to war. The 1916, 1940, and 1944 games were all cancelled due to the World Wars. The 1972 Munich Olympics were marred by terrorists who abducted and killed 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. The 1996 Atlanta games saw a bombing by a domestic terrorist that killed 2, and injured 111.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, offers another PR opportunity for the world, but there is already negative spin associated with the games. Russia’s recent anti-gay propaganda law, which threatens fines and jail time for anyone “promoting a gay lifestyle” in front of children, which has simply meant “in public” since it went into effect, has caused many to call for boycotts of the games. The IOC and the Russian government have said the law will be in effect for athletes and spectators at the games, which could mean a major international incident. Though only time will tell, it is clear that PR for the games is already turning sour, and making international public relations that much more difficult.