There was a time when countries used the Olympic stage to protest militarism, tyranny and oppression.
But, for decades now, most governments and their corporate partners have been invested in the business of the quadrennial spectacle.
And while pre-Olympic news reports from Rio have highlighted Zika virus and the city’s slums, crime and polluted waterways, only a cataclysm will supersede feel-good sports stories once the Games open August 5th.
Just in case, most large media outlets assign a news reporter to the Olympic city before and during the Games.
I was that guy 40 years ago, when an alliance of angry Africans ran me ragged in Montreal.
When they arrived in Canada for the 1976 Summer Games, many newly independent and black-ruled African countries were starting to flex their muscles, winning support for more and more sanctions to isolate the apartheid regime in South Africa and the racist government in Rhodesia.
They’d succeeded in getting South Africa kicked out of the International Olympic Committee before the Tokyo Games in 1964 and had done the same to Rhodesia before Munich in ’72.
In Montreal, they wanted New Zealand booted because that country had allowed its rugby team, the All Blacks – named for the color of its uniforms and not the color of the players’ skin – to tour South Africa.
New Zealand argued it had no control over a rugby team that had nothing to do with the Olympics. The IOC agreed.
But that didn’t satisfy the Africans. They launched what had become an Olympic tradition – a boycott.
The first serious move to shun and shame the Olympics came after the IOC awarded the 1936 Games to Berlin.
But calls for a U.S. boycott were drowned out by the head of the American Olympic committee, Avery Brundage, who railed about a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”
The show went on, with Hitler presiding, and goose-stepping Nazis providing the pageantry.
(Brundage would later stamp his brand of anti-Semitism on the IOC presidency, from 1952 to 1972, deciding after the Munich massacre of Israelis that a 24-hour pause in the Games was a suitable period of mourning.)
Twenty years after Berlin, the sorry state of the world precipitated the first boycotts of the Olympics.
It wasn’t a beef with the Aussies that kept countries from sending teams to Melbourne in 1956:
- Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
- Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq cited the Suez Crisis.
- China wouldn’t play nice with Taiwan.
By the time the Summer Games rolled around in July 1976, with memories of murder in Munich still fresh, the Olympics had truly become a political platform and a security-first show.
I was based in Montreal with UPI, having covered all the pre-Olympic comedy, mainly budget and construction fiascos.
Just before the July 17 opening ceremonies, word of the African boycott spread through Montreal like a bushfire.
And it was my job to chase it.
“Talk to the chefs de mission,” said UPI sports editor Mike Hughes.
“Why would I want to talk to the cooks?” I deadpanned.
He looked at me like I was the Olympic village idiot.
Mike was a man of the world, beginning with his exotic pedigree: born in India to an Irish-Italian father and Spanish-Portuguese mother, schooled in England, a veteran of the Royal Air Force before joining UPI in the 1950s.
He was about ten years older than me, but we seemed to get along well when we met in Montreal, killing a bottle of Johnny Red together before the Games began.
I realized quickly I could get his goat, as I did with my crack about cooks.
Leaving the press center, I began sprinting from office to office of the African teams.
My first stop was the chef de mission from Uganda.
“So, do you know Idi Amin? Nice guy?” I asked as an opener.
Receiving a quizzical stare as a reply, I got down to business: “In or out?”
“We’re going home,” he said.
“Mind if I use your phone?” I asked.
“Be my guest,” he said.
I called the UPI office in the press center.
“Uganda’s going home,” I shouted, and dashed to the next office.
All night it was:
“Kenya’s out now – for sure – going home.”
By the end of the night, more than 20 countries had pulled their teams out of the Montreal Olympics.
This would be small potatoes compared to the boycotts at the next two Olympics.
Sixty-five countries joined the U.S.-led snubbing of the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In response, the Kremlin and its toadies stayed away from Los Angeles in 1984.
Rhodesia, after it changed its name to Zimbabwe and the black majority took over the government under the brutish Robert Mugabe, would be welcomed back into the IOC in time for Moscow.
South Africa, as it moved from white apartheid oppression to democratic black-majority rule, was back in the Games at Barcelona in 1992.
Meanwhile, the IOC has moved from the hypocrisy of being the guardian of pure amateur sport to being the custodian of corporate interests.
If Panasonic and Samsung want to sell their toys in China, let’s give Beijing the Olympics – twice in 14 years.
Never mind that this summer’s host country, Brazil, is falling apart politically and economically, its government crippled by scandal and its people awash in poverty and crime.
Never mind that some athletes are afraid of the Zika virus, or human waste floating in the bay during the sailing events.
As long as Coke and McDonald’s are still on board, everything will be just peachy in Rio.
A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.