Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Olympic Games and Politics

During the Cold War, the Olympic Games became a prominent tool in the propaganda war between East and West. Each side believed that Olympic victories would demonstrate the superiority of its social and political system, and each side used diplomacy, boycotts, and other political measures to seek prestige and influence at the Olympics, especially as the event grew into an enormously popular global festival.

In the United States, Olympic participation was largely funded by private sources, and athletes adhered to the amateur ideal (at least in principle) until that went by the wayside in the 1980s. In contrast, the Soviet Union's highly successful "big red sports machine" was entirely state-sponsored, and the Soviet government poured substantial resources into training and nurturing athletes who were amateur in name only.

The Soviet Union entered the Olympics for the first time at the 1952 Helsinki Games as part of a drive to bolster its new superpower status through demonstrations of athletic prowess. Winning was a high priority indeed for the Soviet regime, and the first Soviet victory in the unofficial medal count came at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. With the two superpowers and their allies competing directly against one another, international sports events inevitably became highly politicized. The extraordinary growth of television coverage after 1956 and increasing levels of public interest in the Olympics meant that the Games became a highly visible element of the struggle for the hearts and minds of the rest of the world. For many Americans, Soviet bloc athletic successes fed fears that communism was gaining ground in the Cold War, while American victories provided reassurance that freedom would ultimately triumph over tyranny.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the international body that oversees the Games, claimed to eschew politics but could not avoid confronting many thorny political issues during the Cold War. Although the IOC tried to steer a middle course, it often deferred to the wishes of the West, and its president during 1952–1972 was an American, Avery Brundage.

One of the most contentious of these issues was the German question. According to IOC rules, only one committee could be recognized from a country. In 1950, when the division of Germany was still uncertain, the IOC provisionally recognized the Olympic committee of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) as representing all of Germany. The German Democratic Republic (GDR, East Germany) also pressed for recognition, hoping that participation in the Olympics would bring international recognition. Both West Germany and the United States blocked the East German bid, however. In 1955 the IOC provisionally recognized East Germany but insisted that East Germans compete jointly with the West German team. At the 1968 Games, with the division of Germany firmly established, the IOC finally permitted a separate East German team. The East German sports system, which was highly regimented and relied heavily on the use of illegal drugs, achieved impressive successes that undoubtedly aided the country's campaign for worldwide political recognition.

The IOC faced a similarly protracted political debate over China. After the communists established the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland in 1949, the IOC debated whether to recognize the PRC, the Nationalists in Taiwan, or both. At the 1952 Games, the Nationalists refused to come and the PRC athletes arrived too late to participate. In 1958 the PRC withdrew from the Olympic movement in protest against Taiwan's continuing participation. In 1971, when the United Nations (UN) expelled Taiwan and recognized communist China, the IOC haltingly began to make overtures to the PRC. In 1976 the Canadian government, which had adopted a one-China policy, set off a political firestorm when it refused to allow the Taiwan team to enter the Montreal Olympics under the name Republic of China (ROC). Many Americans were outraged and called for a boycott. Taiwan's athletes ultimately withdrew, and a few years later a compromise was reached whereby the IOC admitted the PRC as China's representative, while Taiwan remained a member under the name Taipei. The PRC's first Olympic appearance came at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. The PRC boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games.

Despite security precautions, there was a bloody terrorist incident during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. On 5 September 1972, eight members of Yasir Arafat's al-Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) gained entrance to the Olympic Village, five of them by scaling a fence. They then killed two Israeli athletes and took nine others hostage.

The terrorists called themselves Black September in order to mask their al-Fatah identify, but Arafat had ordered the operation. The terrorists demanded that Israel free 234 Arab prisoners and that West Germany release two German terrorist leaders imprisoned in Frankfurt. Following several hours of negotiations, the German government and the terrorists reached a deal providing for a plane to Cairo. Meanwhile, German sharpshooters took up position with orders to open fire simultaneously and kill all the terrorists without harming the hostages.

The Germans then transported the terrorists, hostages, and several German officials by three helicopters to a nearby military airfield where a Lufthansa jet was waiting. The German rescue attempt there went awry, and in the bloody shootout that followed at 3:00 A.M. on 6 September, the Palestinians set off a grenade in one of two helicopters, killing all aboard, while the terrorists in the remaining helicopter killed all the remaining blindfolded Israeli hostages. The firefight claimed eleven Israelis, five terrorists, and one German policeman. Three of the terrorists were captured alive.

The next month other terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa jet, and in order to secure the release of the passengers, the German government agreed to free the three imprisoned terrorists, who were flown to freedom in Libya.

The most far-reaching episode of East-West conflict involving the Olympic Games erupted after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. To protest the Soviets' action, President Jimmy Carter pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to withdraw the American team from the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Under American pressure, a number of U.S. allies, including West Germany and Japan, also withdrew. Others, such as France, participated as a way of asserting independence from U.S. policy.

Only a few weeks before Los Angeles opened the next Olympic Games in 1984, the Soviet Union announced that it would not participate. The Soviet government cited concerns over a hostile environment in the United States, but most commentators saw the move as retaliation for the 1980 boycott. Despite the withdrawal of seventeen other nations, including East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba, and Hungary, the Games proved popular and—thanks to unprecedented commercialization—were financially successful. As a result of the Soviet boycott, the Olympics attracted intense nationalistic fervor in the United States.

Cold War rivalries also spawned some of the best-known Olympic sporting moments. In 1956, in the aftermath of the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, a Hungarian-Soviet water polo match turned into a bloody fistfight. In 1972 the unbeaten American basketball team lost to the Soviets after a controversial decision in the last seconds of the gold-medal match. The American ice hockey team's improbable victory over the heavily favored Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, was credited with helping to revive American patriotism after a decade of economic and political gloom.

The lead in the unofficial medal count at the Games was held more often by the Soviet Union than the United States. In 1988 in Seoul, the Soviets and East Germans won a decisive victory in this. These Olympics also saw the last appearance of athletes from the USSR, although they continued to represent their new nations.

Barbara Keys


Further Reading
Hill, Christopher. Olympic Politics. 2nd ed. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1996.; International Olympic Committee. One Hundred Years: The Idea, the Presidents, the Achievements. 3 vols. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, 1994–1996.
 

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