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ESSAYS The politics of the Olympics: an introduction

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the right to host the 2016 Summer Olympics in the face of apparently strong competition from a Chicago bid that had been enthusiastically endorsed by US President Barack Obama, Dick Pound, a Canadian International Olympic Committee (IOC) member commented, ‘It is not an anti-America thing or an anti-Obama thing. It’s a sports competition, not true politics’ (Sunday Morning Post, 4 October 2009). In Pound’s words were echoes of sentiments expressed in 1936 by an illustrious predecessor in the Olympic Movement. Faced with demands that there should be a boycott of the Olympic Games in Berlin, Avery Brundage, the President of the US Olympic Committee and later the President of the IOC, protested that ‘politics has no place in sport’. It is a mantra that has been repeated over the years by countless sports leaders, although increasingly such a claim is likely to be met by muted laughter at the very least. Indeed, the IOC’s Olympic Charter stresses the need ‘to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes’. However, as is clearly demonstrated in each of the chapters in this book, sport and politics do mix and it is inevitable that they should do so. Indeed, this is the case regardless of how we define the political. There are various ways in which what is political can be defined. It is reason-

able, for example, to argue that every human association is inherently political since each incorporates processes through which conflict is managed, resources allocated, rewards conferred and punishments prescribed and enacted. Sports clubs and organizations are no different from other human associations in this respect, despite what we have been often led to believe. More often than not, however, the study of politics is centred on the activities of states as opposed to other social organisms for the simple reason that the state is the most common, the most genuinely universal, human association (Berki, 1977). Furthermore, it demands our highest loyalty and usually receives it. It has a stricter and more pronounced differentiation of roles and functions than most other associations. Finally, amongst all human associations, the state presents us with the greatest intellectual problems. Inevitably, therefore, any true political reading of sport must take into account its relationship with states at both domestic and international levels. What Antonio Gramsci (1971), more than most political thinkers, showed us is the degree to

which politics intrudes on every facet of our lives. Thus, we can move relatively easily from the politics of human associations through the politics of the state to the politics of just about everything, and all of these definitions of the political have relevance for the study of the Olympics. In 2002, at the Salt Lake City Winter Games, Alain Baxter became the first

British competitor to win a medal (bronze) in alpine skiing. This achievement was subsequently overshadowed when Baxter was found guilty of taking a performance-enhancing drug. He successfully appealed this decision but did not win the right to have his medal returned. These events not only overshadowed Baxter’s performance on the slopes but also another controversial facet of his Olympic appearance. Prior to competition, he had dyed his hair blue and white in the shape of the Cross of St Andrew, the national flag of his native Scotland. In accordance with IOC rules, the British Olympic Committee asked Baxter to remove the dye which could be deemed to be symbolically political-in the sense that Baxter was making a statement about Scotland’s non-independent, constitutional status as a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on behalf of which he was competing at the Games. It is almost certain that the gesture owed far more to unthinking patriotism than to a carefully orchestrated campaign to promote the cause of Scottish nationalism, but it was sufficient to be regarded as political by the Olympic authorities. When real political statements are made by athletes, the reaction, not surprisingly, can be even more punitive and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the context of the politics of ‘race’.