Sport diplomacy issues (4): Boycott? In and out
Dr. Gilles Klein, 21 April 2017
What sportsman doesn’t appreciate a good beer following a competition or an intense training session? I remember those refreshing moments that punctuate the ascension of Ventoux or the mountain passes of the Alps on a bike. But the beer which I remember the most is a Guinness shared with one of the icons of my generation of athletes. Kaloum, the business neighborhood in Conakry, close to the Grand Hotel of Independence. My friend, Dr. Pivi takes us to the far end of the spit of land, near the Port of Boulbinet. In one of the modest bars of the Guinean capital city, colleagues from the national institute of sports introduced me to Ron Freeman, representative of a non-governmental organization promoting sports. He was also a great American athlete.
With Ron, the contact is easy. We are from the same generation. The ice is quickly broken. In professional terms, we share the same mission. Devoting our retirement to trying to raise funds, we act to encourage access to sport for young people. We exchange our experiences in Guinea and consider cooperating. In personal terms, I tell him I watched his performance with the American 4x400 meters team. He was the second runner of the team winning the title establishing a new world record during the Mexico Olympic games. Ron was also on the podium of the 400 meters with the bronze medal.
At that time, I was a physical education student and had experienced the May 1968 events in France at close hand. Events were initiated by a part of the student Youth, this spontaneous anti-authoritarian revolt, at the same time cultural, social and political was directed against capitalism, American imperialism and more directly in France against the power of the General de Gaulle who personified authority. We took part in a revolt that tried pointing out all kinds of discriminations. May 1968 was a fantastic boycott of the then society by Youth itself.
With Ron, we also talked about Tommie Smith and his militant boycotting act. “Tommie jet”, another athlete of the American team, was one of the best athletes of all times in the 200 meters. But the young rebels that we were, amateur boycotters of State authoritarianism, were struck by his protest with his compatriot John Carlos and the Australian Peter Norman against the discrimination against black people in the United States, on the 200 meters podium in Mexico.
Ron told what everyone already knows. But hearing the story live was very moving. Tommie had been unable to take part in the Olympic 400 meters, due to his performance at the American selections, a kind of justice of the peace before the Games. He brought back to life the famous podium of the 400 meters. Tommie climbed on the podium in socks and raised a black-gloved fist, head down during his country's anthem. His compatriot, John Carlos raised the left black-gloved fist. A pair of gloves shared to support the boycott movement of the Olympic games by the Afro-American athletes due to the non-respect of their civil rights.
In a general sense, a boycott is the refusal to consume the products and services by a nation. A refusal that can be extended to elections and events. Charles Cunningham Boycott was the first victim of this opposition. An Irish intendant who treated his farmers so badly, they opposed a blockade. Over the course of its history, sport, particularly given the chance of the Olympic Games, has frequently been subject to this kind of blockade or ostracism through numerous scandals and controversies between States. Some of them boycotted the Games several times as an outward expression towards the Olympic International Committee.
One remembers the 1936 Games, organized in Berlin by the Nazi regime, that had been the subject of numerous controversies. The Jesse Owens’ story is often reported as emblematic of the Nazi boycott towards the United States. The latter, who broke or equalized six world records at the Big Ten conference, won four gold medals in front of Adolf Hitler. Some days before the Owens’ victory, Hitler salutes the German winners and left the stadium before saluting the high jump winner, the Afro-American Cornelius Johnson. The competition officials advise him to congratulate all the champions, so Hitler decides to congratulate nobody henceforth.
Owens had not been the specific target of a boycott from the Nazi dictator. In his memories, relating to the boycott, Owens targets more his country than the Nazi regime: “Hitler didn’t snub me, it is our President who snubbed me”. The President didn’t even send me a telegram”… “Following these stories that Hitler snubbed me, when I returned to the United States I was not able to seat at the front of the buses, I was obliged to sit at the back, I was not able to live as I wanted. In other words, as Tommie Smith made it 34 years later, it is his own country that Owens boycotted. A country that was not able to break from racial segregation. Smith and Owens expressed what I could qualify a “boycott in” towards their own authorities.
The Smith and Owen’s “boycott in » acts are individual acts that are not crystallized in diplomacy through sport. These two behaviors didn’t particularly manifest an opposition towards other countries. In Berlin, one shall look at Spain to understand what is a State boycott towards another nation, what I may qualify as “boycott out”. The Spanish government decides to boycott the Games and organizes the popular Olympiads, inviting worldwide workers’ groups to attend competitions. The Popular Front opposes itself explicitly to Nazism. This time, sport is indeed a tool of foreign policy.
Indeed, the United States and the URSS provide the best examples of boycott as means of foreign policy. To understand the tension between the two States, the year 1980 is, without a doubt, the period that allows a good understanding of the boycott strategy. A year that sees the Winter Olympic Games in the United States and then the Summer Games in Moscow.
In the context of « Cold War », the tension between the two states is an old story. But on the stadiums, the war is far from being cold. The event called “miracle on ice” is one of the best illustrations. This expression summarizes the victory, as improbable as it was unexpected, of the American team against the Soviet Union during the last round of the Ice hockey Olympic tournament of the Winter XIII Olympic Games. On 22 February 1980, the hockey players accomplished the feat of beating the Soviet team, previously considered invincible and won the gold medal.
We observed it, sports diplomacy initially crystallizes on duos or duels that constitute the promise of a relaxation or the creation of a tension. This time, the two gate-keepers defending the goals are the focus. A distance duel between Jim Craig, the American gate-keeper, and Vladislas Tretiak, Russian and best gate-keeper in the world. The first played a series of crucial blocks, preventing the Russians widening the difference. The second had been sidelined by the Russian coach Tikhonov at the beginning of the second period.
The Soviet team, which won its matches by often significant gaps was not able to escape. The succession of equalizations by the American team triggered the enthusiasm of a supportive American public. At the end of the match, the American team was a single goal ahead. Sidelined, Tretiak could only look on. His counterpart Craig vigorously resisted the Soviet offensive assaults until the end in a fantastic atmosphere. The United States then won an improbable victory, qualified as a miracle. The American Youth triumphed that day against the Soviet experience. The sports tension was revealing of the diplomatic tension between the two countries.
Indeed, the miracle on ice happens only two months following the Afghanistan invasion by the Soviet army. From December 1979 to February 1989, the Afghanistan war opposed the MOU Jahi dins supported by the United States and predominantly Muslim countries against the communist Afghan regime supported by USSR. It is then within a climate of international diplomatic tension that the Winter games took place, then the Summer Games in 1980.
The XXII Summer Olympic Games take place in Moscow in July and August 1980. For the first time, the capital welcomes this major international sports event. They remain characterized by the boycott of around fifty nations, including the United States to signify their opposition to the Afghanistan invasion by the Soviet Union. They were considered as the Games of the East. In the stadium, the value of the competitions was questioned by the boycotters, even if 36 world records were improved.
In the stadium, one remembers the gesture that symbolized the boycott. Like in Lake Placid, it starts by a duel. At the pole vault competition, the Polish Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz and the Soviet Konstantin Volkov carry out a fierce battle under the public boos. The second failed his three attempts. The Pole secures the Olympic title by crossing a bar at 5,75 meters, then breaks the record held by the French Philippe Houvion. After the contest, he addresses a two-fingered gesture to the public of the Loujniki stadium. Through this gesture, does the pole vaulter address the public? Or is this an act of resistance, against a boycott background, towards the Soviet control of his country.
Nevertheless, the gesture triggers a diplomatic process. The USSR Ambassador in Poland requests the international Olympic Committee to withdraw Kozakiewicz’s gold medal for “insult to the Soviet people”. The Polish government states that the athlete’s gesture was only the consequence of a muscle spasm. Finally, Kozakiewicz is not sanctioned. The ambassador’s request is in fact only one consequence of the American decision to boycott the Moscow Games.
Let us come back to the boycott that in December 1979 the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. In their diplomacy through sport, the Americans used boycott as a means of pressure on their opponent in the Cold War. On 20 January 1980, one month before the “miracle on ice”, the President Jimmy Carter addresses an ultimatum to the Kremlin leaders: “if in one month at the latest, your troops have not left Afghanistan, the American team will not go to Moscow and we will ask other countries to abstain as well”.
The Olympic Committee conducted the negotiations and obtain only some concessions from Leonid Brejnev, notably the parade of the Russian delegation behind the Olympic banner. Some minor concessions to which Washington didn’t surrender. Countries such as Canada, Japan, South Korea and West Germany align with the American positions. 29 Muslim countries associate themselves with the boycott considering the attack against Afghanistan as an attack against Islam.
As in sport, diplomacy is organized in the alternation of first and return matches. The Los Angeles Olympic Games are for Leonid Brejnev a kind of return match, after the first match in Moscow. On 8 May 1984, the USSR announces its decision to not send a delegation to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. The Democratic Republic of Germany and Cuba follow the step, followed by the majority of the Soviet bloc. Such as in Moscow, the IOC played the role of negotiator. But this boycott happened and involved around fifteen countries. Such as in 1936, such as in 1980, the boycotting countries have organized alternative games open to the delegations of the boycotters. The boycott thus ensures the triumph of the political and diplomatic challenges against the sports challenges. However, to advance their capacity for international influence, the organization of major events, with big expenses and magnificence, remains for some countries the best means to display their power.