The curtain has been raised on ‘the Greatest Show on Earth’ thanks to Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony – a paean to the Best of British ‘soft power’: Shakespeare, the Industrial Revolution, the Beatles, the Internet etc and, of course, a sky-diving head of state. The games may have just begun, but playing politics with the Olympics never really stops…
Any concerns Britons may have harboured about security, transport and ticketing arrangements at the XXX Olympiad have been (momentarily) overshadowed by the umbrage taken at remarks made by Mitt Romney during his pre-Games visit to Downing Street. The Republican Presidential nominee, with all the bluster of a corporate titan rather than the measured calculation of a politico, stumbled from blunder to blunder and appeared to diss London 2012. Romney’s gaffes drew sharp rebukes from both PM David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson, worryingly revealed the Oval Office aspirant’s foreign policy myopia (Britain should be ‘an easy date’ for an American politician) and demonstrated that IR can always claim a place on the podium when it comes to the Olympics.
So far, Iran has threatened to boycott the Games because it thinks the Olympic logo spells ‘Zion’ (bizarrely, the Iranians kinda have a point…) A miffed North Korean women’s football team walked off the field, delaying the start to their match against Colombia, when they were introduced along with the South Korean taegukgi. There have been protests in India at the Games’ sponsorship by Dow Chemical – still considered to have liabilities for the 1984 Bhopal chemical plant disaster. And Algeria has been warned by the IOC after speculation that some its athletes may refuse to compete against Israeli opponents. Further IR grudge matches await but, by Olympian standards, these contretemps pale in comparison to the past controversies that have attended this most global of events.
The Olympic Games have been loci for political expressions of power and influence since their Ancient Greek city-state origins. Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s revival of the Olympic Movement was explicitly infused with internationalist aspirations: international peace and cooperation could be attained through the mutual celebration of sporting excellence. Coubertin hoped that sport could directly influence politics, but the obverse is also true as political intervention has been a feature of the modern Olympic Games. From fascist grandstanding in Berlin (1936) to the tragedy of ‘Black September’ in Munich (1972) to Cold War-inspired abstention (Moscow 1980, Los Angeles 1984) to Beijing’s ‘coming out’ in 2008, the Olympics have always been ideologically-loaded occasions. NZ has played its part in the political gamesmanship – in 1976, 25 African countries boycotted the Montreal Games because the IOC refused to exclude NZ after the All Blacks’ tour of Olympics-banned, apartheid South Africa.
Alongside the weight of their political history, the Games have divided opinion between those who see them as cultivating a sense of international communitas or alternatively perpetuating international animosity through the binary either-or logic of sport. In addition, the administering body, the IOC, has been dogged by persistent allegations of corruption and bias – charges which tarnish the Olympic Movement’s reputation and internationalist goals. With former leaders like Nazi sympathiser ‘Slavery Avery’ Brundage (infamous for furiously denouncing the ‘Black Power’ salute of 1968) and scandal-ridden João Havelange (currently embroiled in bribery allegations relating to his tenure at FIFA), the IOC has not been best-served by its top brass.
It’s early days but worth considering what legacy London 2012 will leave behind. There has already been criticism of the punitive cost of the Games in times of austerity (the opening ceremony alone cost £27 million) and the corporatisation of this ‘five-ringed circus’. As well as public discontent at the escalating securitisation and militaritisation.
Will ‘maior, ditiores, communistarum’ (‘bigger, richer, communist’) win out as the Olympic motto with China out-medalling the US? What other Olympic/IR angles are making the headlines?