Repoliticizing the Olympics

Ten days before the start of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, the first Third World country to host the games was christened when the government brutally killed hundreds of protesters. Acting as the bulwark for an anti-state movement, 10,000 students took to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the Mexican government, hoping to draw attention to the magnitude of social and political injustice that it sustained. Among the chants rippling throughout the demo in Tlatelolco was the movingly succinct, “We don’t want Olympic games. We want revolution!” By sunset, 200 tanks, 5,000 soldiers and the Olympic Battalion (a special peacekeeping force) had begun their massacre of more than 300 unarmed protestors and the imprisonment of 1,000 others. Nonetheless, Avery Brundage, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, called for the peaceful entrance of the Olympic flame and was assured a smooth start to the Games by the Mexican government.

Fourteen days after the massacre, upon winning gold and bronze in the men’s 200-metre race, two black Americans found themselves approaching the victory podium. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a statement on the situation of black people in America that would chill audiences around the world. With all on eyes them, they courageously undermined Brundage’s wish for sport without politics. Each thrusting a clenched fist sheathed in a black glove into the air, the black power salute met head on with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The black glove symbolized black America; the arc between the athletes’ arms, black American unity; their shoeless feet, black poverty; the beads around Carlos’ neck, prayers for lynched blacks; and Carlos’s unzipped jacket was a tribute to black and white blue-collar workers across the States. Within two days, Brundage had Smith and Carlos kicked out of the Olympic Village and suspended from the U.S. Olympic team.

With these events in mind, it is an act of gross appropriation that the IOC has the gall to tout itself as a “movement.” Apart from the complete depoliticization and neutralization of a term that has been used to label the work of people forwarding progressive ideas for centuries (and as shown, against the Olympics), it works to mask the violence, destruction, and corporatization that the Olympics ushers in.

The Olympic Games does not just represent itself as your run-of-the-mill movement. It is one that reaches for the stars. By so graciously placing sport at the service of humanity, it aims to promote a better and more peaceful world. Hell, according to its Charter, it even allies with organizations working in the “field of peace!” Make no mistake, though, there is no room for those silly political understandings of oppression on the Olympic stage. After all, peace and politics do not mix. If anything, politics detract from and bastardize the message of peace. Everyone knows struggling against inequality and injustice can only be done first by ignoring their existence, and second by smacking brands on the backs of athletes and throwing nations into competition.

Through the three values of excellence, friendship, and respect, the Olympic propaganda machine weaves together a story about global encounters and mutual understanding. Some of the fundamental principles of the Olympic movement include the preservation of human dignity and the nurturing of global solidarity. With an eye to the past and one to the present, I can’t help but scoff at the invocation of words like understanding, human dignity, and solidarity in association with a profit-mongering, corporate-run, colonial, imperial body like the Olympic Games.

Anti-2010 resistance and organization have crested in the past few days. Organizers point to the increased criminalization of the poor and “undesirables,” the demolition of low-income housing, the continued appropriation of and construction on unceded indigenous territory, the channeling of $1 billion toward the creation of a police state, international market expansion, and environmental destruction.

On many levels, the Tlatelolco massacre, the black power salute, and anti-2010 resistance are one and the same. They speak to the collusion of federal governments with the Olympic Games in oppressing people around the world. They expose the diversion of money and resources away from the mass of citizens and toward corporations and the elite. They reveal how governments subdue and repress dissent. They puncture thinly veiled appeals to peace with unapologetic and politicized stances. They work as movements demanding the valuing of life over profit. And finally, taken together, they stand as a true story about humanity and the potential for global solidarity.

Lisa M radically rereads this space every other week. Send her a fist-pump: