Every four years, we experience the summer Olympics. They formally open today in Beijing, although women’s soccer has already kicked off. The Olympics are a major media event, one that NBC paid $1 billion for the rights to televise. While the athletes are there to perform at their best and many great athletes will be participating, the side shows are almost as interesting.
Illegal substances or “doping” may appear to be a recent issue, but have actually been around since the 1960 Olympics in Rome when Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died during his event after injecting a doping agent. At the same Olympics, American and Soviet weightlifters acknowledged taking anabolic steroids.
Politics dominated the agenda before 1960 when China and Taiwan competed in the international arena over who had the right to represent China in the Olympics. German officials at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, often remembered as “Hitler’s Olympics,” snubbed Jesse Owens and other black athletes. I imagine that there are very few who can forget the Israeli team hostage situation in Munich in 1972. In 1980, the U.S. and sixty other countries boycotted the Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1984, the Soviets and several other Eastern-bloc countries boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics as retribution. This year, we have the concerns regarding Tibet as well as the revocation of speedskater Joey Cheek’s visa presumably (though the Chinese have not yet and are not required to give any reason for this action) for his involvement in Team Darfur, a group of seventy athletes whose goal it is to raise awareness of human rights violations in the Darfur region of Sudan.
With the diversity of world politics and the seeming desire of the media to cover any potential controversy, it’s difficult to think of a time when no political agendas would be on the table. That said, the pageantry of the opening ceremonies is splendid and there seems to be an event for just about everyone’s liking (although the more popular ones are broadcast in primetime). When the games kick off, the politics usually go away. Let’s hope for world-class performances by all the athletes. Good luck to every athlete.