In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Sarantakes of the U.S. Naval War College examines how tense international relations have regularly spilled over into the Olympic arena.
Nicholas Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. As a diplomatic historian, his research interests focus on the World War II and Cold War eras, and the Asia/Pacific region. In 2009 he published, Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Southern California.
Dr. Nicholas Sarantakes – The Olympics and International Relations
Every four years the world gathers together to watch the best athletes on the planet compete against one another. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin established the International Olympic Committee and “revived” the modern Olympics, he attempted to model them as much as possible on the Games of ancient Greece. Both were held every four years and shared some of the same events. A major difference between the two is that the modern festival moves around. In antiquity the Games were always held in Olympia. The Committee, on the other hand, moves the Games to a different city with each Olympiad. This year London will set the record for hosting the Olympics on three different occasions.
Another major difference is that the ancient Games were a religious festival, while the modern ones have a strong political theme to them. Since the teams are organized along national lines, this outcome is hardly surprising. But the Olympics have a magic of their own. They generate nationalism, but they also bring the world together in an international gathering and take that fierce sentiment and channels it into peaceful competition and expressions.
There is a reason then why the Olympics have survived two world wars, the Cold War and numerous political boycotts. Roughly half of all the Games have been the target of a boycott. Not many people remember Indonesia’s boycott of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 or North Korea and Cuba’s of the Seoul Games in 1988. The two biggest boycotts came in 1980 and 1984 when the Americans and Soviets tried to use the games as a forum for the Cold War. Both efforts failed. In 1984 no one really cared about the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics. The Americans were having a party, they were watching amazing athletes do their thing just has had been the case four years before in Moscow.
This is not to say that the modern Olympics are not a powerful political forum for geopolitical issues at times—they are—but only within the framework of the Games themselves. The idealistic Olympic spirit is strong stuff. So strong that it contains the nationalism and political opportunism that it generates.