Faster, Higher, Stronger: A History of Olympic Oppression

By Erika Kreeger, ’15

On December 4th, Erika published a piece entitled “Minha Casa, Minha Vida” about the human right’s violations occurring in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in preparation for the Olympic Games. This is a follow up to that piece.

Beijing Olympic Torch,

Beijing Olympic Torch,

Any conversation about the problems in Rio de Janeiro surrounding the World Cup and the Olympic Games would be strikingly inadequate without a critical look at past events to place these current tournaments in better context. Forced removals were completely commonplace in preparation for many Olympics. Some (unfortunately, I am not one of them) may have been old enough or aware enough to read about the controversy surrounding the Beijing Games in 2008, in which 1.25 million people were dislocated in the years prior to the Games, dwarfing the previous record of 720,000 for the Seoul Olympics in 1988. By these numbers, Brazil’s heinous 170,000 seems rather measly and insignificant.

Beyond forced removals, there are ‘anti-crime’ crackdowns and roundups in the months and days prior to the Opening Ceremonies arguably to make the city safer, but which overwhelmingly unreasonably and excessively target poor, geographically disadvantaged, oppressed communities. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, while generally viewed as an amazing success, was also marked by extreme police brutality and crackdowns in the South Central and East parts of the city. As Dave Zirin writes in The Nation:

“[Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl] Gates kept calm [in Los Angeles] by expanding his infamous police gang sweeps… and keeping entire areas of the city, especially South Central and East LA, under conditions of military occupation. Politicians and judges conspired to revive old, anti-syndicalist laws to jail masses of black youth, though the overwhelming numbers of people arrested were never charged.”

The police brutality that Gates ushered in as a result of the Olympics continued for many years. The number of complaints against police officers rose by 33% in the 4 years following the Olympics. Some, like Zirin, argue that the Los Angeles Olympics were crucial to the riots in 1992 after the beating of Rodney King by significantly contributing to the development of an environment of inequality and hardship for the city’s black population.

soldiersBut probably the most heinous, single action of absolute State brutality was displayed in Mexico at the hands of then Interior Minister and head of national security, Luis Echeverría, who had up to 500 people murdered, mostly students and workers, at a pro-democracy rally at the Plaza de la Tres Culturas in Tlotelolco, on October 2nd, just days before the start of the games. It was not until 2006 when Echeverría, who went on to be president of Mexico, was eventually put to trial on the charge of genocide of a political group, although it was determined the next year that too much time had passed for him to be charged.

Black Power Salute in the Mexico City Olympic, Tommie Cross (center), John Carlos (right), NYT

Black Power Salute in the Mexico City Olympic, Tommie Cross (center), John Carlos (right), NYT

The motives behind these murders are the same as the motives behind the forced removals in Rio, Seoul, Beijing, London and any other city in which mass dislocation or roundups of oppressed citizens occurred- with the entire world scrutinizing their every move, the cities felt that they needed to put their best foot forward, and these ruffians, whether pro-democracy protesters or a lifelong resident of the Mêtro-Mangueira favela, were seen as a shameful blemish that needed ridding of.

Mass murder of students and workers, though, is not the only reason why the games in 1968 are remembered to this day as a critical point in Olympic history. After coming in 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the 200 meter sprint, American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both African American, bowed their heads and raised a black glove covered fist during the playing of the National Anthem during their medal ceremony in one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. This protest, known widely as the Black Power Salute, shocked white views everywhere and empowered blacks across the nation.

Writes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a participant in the Mexico City Olympics, in the Los Angeles Times:

“1968 wasn’t like any other year. The Vietnam War had divided the [US] more violently than any time since the Civil War. The nightly news clips of U.S. planes bombing the Vietnam jungle were paralleled by clips of angry, sometimes bloody, clashes between war protesters and war supporters.
Violence was almost as rampant at home. First Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, then Robert Kennedy. The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago featured thousands of anti-war protesters who were met with police violence.
In the midst of all this international and domestic turmoil, the Olympic Games represented, to some, an opportunity to bring people of all nationalities together, maybe heal some wounds. To others it represented the usual hypocrisy of ignoring the political problems in the name of entertainment and profit.”

Abdul-Jabbar goes on to talk about the strain the 1968 Olympics and the Vietnam War placed on race relations in the United States, saying “[i]n each, blacks were supposed to go overseas to drive themselves as hard as they could in order to bring glory to their country, only to return home and still be treated as second-class citizens.”

Harry Edwards,

Harry Edwards,

Dr. Harry Edwards, a young, black sociology professor at San Jose State University, urged black athletes to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Games, arguing that drastic efforts were needed to call attention to the racial inequality African Americans faced at home.

But due to low athlete support, instead of a boycott, Edwards pushed for black athletes to subversively protest the conditions at home through individual actions. While the most famous is Carlos and Smith’s Black Power Salute, other athletes accepted awards barefoot to show solidarity with their fellow black Americans.

In 1967, Edwards created the Olympic Project on Human Rights with 3 major, stated goals: restoring Muhammad Ali’s title; disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia from the 1968 Olympic Games; and removing American Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee.


Avery Brundage, olympic-

The openly racist, Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semite Brundage pushed for the extreme censure of Smith and Carlos for their Black Power Salute, threatening to suspend the entire US track team if the United States Olympic Committee did not immediately suspend the two and kick them out of the Olympic Village.

Brundage believed it was absolutely imperative that the Olympics and the sports world in general stay completely apolitical. Despite supporting the Nazi salutes during the 1936 Berlin Games, which Brundage argued was a national salute and therefore permissible, Brundage worked ardently to suppress and punish this kind of political action. To this day, his legacy of purported apoliticism lives on.

This highlights one of the biggest problems facing the Olympics today. On a strictly literal level, the Olympics are apolitical, the most iconic international sporting event in modern history; but as much as the IOC may hate to admit, the Games are without a doubt one of the most important political events in modern history, just by virtue of the fact that they are bringing together cultures and countries in a world where tension and strife will inevitably exist. The Olympics, at the very least, should not exacerbate that tension through the apathy of their apoliticism.

Host cities see the Olympics as their chance to shine, their chance to show off their greatness to the rest of the world. And, rightfully so, they want everything to be perfect. But that must not come at the expense of human rights violations and violations of free speech.

The International Olympic Committee needs to create an effective vehicle for critically evaluating social, political and economic damage that occurred and is occurring as a result of the Games, and for advising future host cities how to best develop the Olympics without completely abandoning their citizen’s human rights. To meet this needs, the IOC should construct a new Olympic Committee for Human Rights with 4 stated objectives:

1. To work with host cities and nations to ensure that no citizen is forcibly removed, legally coerced or in any other way dislocated from their property as a result of the Olympics. It is not enough to ensure that residents are given due process before their houses and communities are stripped from them. Host city citizens must be protected from being removed from their houses and communities at the hands of the Olympics.

2. To engage athletes with vulnerable youth and segments of the population through outreach, education and sports programs. The Olympics can be a huge instrument for social change, in particular for disadvantaged residents, who are often ignored in the festivities surrounding the Olympics by virtue of being economically disadvantaged.

3. To work with local police and contracted security to create a secure environment, yet does not target citizens the city views as undesirable.

Athens Olympic Swimming Complex, 8 years later,

Athens Olympic Swimming Complex, 8 years later,

4. To ensure that infrastructure in the host area is created sustainably, environmentally, economically and socially, and will benefit local residents and tourists both during and after the Games. The infrastructure the city does construct must be able to serve a purpose in the community after the Games; the current disrepair the Athens Olympics Park is in should serve as a warning to host cities to keep in mind the future use of event facilities. In conjunction with this measure, the IOC must also adopt a rule limiting the number of pieces of infrastructure that can be built specifically for the Olympics. Ecological concerns aside, large-scale construction projects tend to be one of the largest causes of forced dislocations. Furthermore, cities and states will invest millions, if not billions, of dollars in these construction problems that will only be used for that one three week period. The city, instead, could spend that money throughout the region to improve existing infrastructure, work with communities to create social assistance programs or subsidize access to nutritious, healthy, local food.

The front page of the IOC’s Olympic Charter states “Olympism is a philosophy of life, which places sport at the service of humankind.” The Olympic Games can be an important tool for social good, a powerful way for nations to heal from century of strife, war, famine, plague, tension and myriad other social problems. The reality is that people fear less what they understand well, at least in the context of personal interaction. The Olympics can facilitate better understanding of other cultures by virtue of this fact, and in doing so, can help improve international communication and cooperation. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said before the 2008 Beijing Olympics:

“the more we talk with each other, the more we understand each other and can reach compromises that will benefit the lives of those we are trying to help. Jackie Robinson once said that the great thing about athletics is that ‘you learn to act democracy, not just talk it.’ That’s what our athletes will demonstrate to the 1 billion Chinese who may be watching.”

Inherently in being a gathering of nations on such a large-scale and grand, international stage, the Olympics is one of the most influential, political events in modern history.  If the IOC wants to live up to its charter, the IOC can no longer continue to deny this apparent fact because their denial leads to nothing by further oppression of already oppressed minority groups, whether through roundups, or forced removals or budget cuts to fund useless construction projects.

The IOC needs to construct a new identity as a vehicle for social justice and positive communication, an identity with which they can still remain neutral in international affairs by acting as a forum for safe, positive, cooperative dialogue. In adopting this new persona, the International Olympic Committee must protect and promote athletes’ freedom of speech and create a new Olympic Project for Human Rights to ensure that the human rights violations occurring in Rio are the last to happen in the Olympics’ name. Only then can the Olympics be the organization that it claims to be: a venue where sports are at the service of humankind.

I am no longer willing to take part in the systems of oppression the Olympics perpetuate. Halting the atrocities in Rio is simply not a good enough answer to assuage my complaints against the IOC. I believe that the city of Rio is largely culpable for the dislocation of many of their favelados given the city’s, state’s and country’s long history of ignoring the rights of the favela residents. But the International Olympic Committee is just as guilty in their oppression.

I said in my previous post on the 2016 Rio Olympics, “I’ve decided that unless serious changes in policy and action are made, I will not attend either the World Cup or the Olympics in Rio, nor will I watch them.” These are the serious changes in policy and action that I need to see before I will ever feel comfortable watching any Olympic Games ever again. We need to make Rio aware that as people for whom, in part, the Olympics is held, we will not stand for this mistreatment of the residents of the favelas. But we need to make the IOC even more aware that we are no longer willing to participate in their system of oppression against already oppressed people for the entertainment of privileged people, such as myself.

If you want to see serious changes to Olympic policy, structure and philosophy, join me in boycotting the Olympics and their sponsors. Educate people, when appropriate, about how we are all complicit in the Olympics’ human rights violations, and continue to educate yourself about this and related issues. If we all work together, we can slowly, but surely, create effective change and help turn the Olympics into a powerful vehicle for international cooperation and social justice.


Erika is a sophomore mostly likely majoring most likely in the Sustainable Food and Agriculture track of the program in Earth Systems. For the record, Tim Howard is her favorite male soccer player, despite forgetting to mention him in her bio on Monday. She loves the idea of the Olympics and hopes to watch them again someday with her great many grandchildren.

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3 thoughts on “Faster, Higher, Stronger: A History of Olympic Oppression

  1. […] that, though, there was talk amongst black academics and black athletes in America to boycott participating on the US Olympic team in the 1968 Mexico City Games to protest social conditions of […]

  2. […] December, I wrote a two part series about the oppressive nature of the Olympics and World Cup, how they both have been used as excuses […]

  3. abvm says:

    this is really great thanks for taking the time to do all the necessary research!

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