Nonviolent activism around the Olympic Games: History and lessons learned

This article was originally published at openDemocracy.net on 24 November 2015 and is available here.

Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion.

A Tiananmen Square-themed Olympic logo. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.Bringing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act on human rights has been the product of decades of international and local resistance, from boycotting South Africa in 1968 to obstructing China’s torch relay in 2008. The key message of this resistance has consistently been that the Olympics is more than just a sporting event. Many campaigns have used the Games to draw attention to myriad rights violations ranging from minority discrimination and the loss of indigenous land to the treatment of political prisoners. There is an opportunity for civil society to build on its achievements, in particular by taking on a proactive role in holding future host countries more accountable.

The empowering spirit of the Olympics motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is increasingly out of step with the global decline in freedom and assault on human rights defenders over the past several decades. These problems are sometimes pronounced in Olympics host countries.

When the IOC votes to award cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting ongoing persecution. Until recently, the IOC could brush aside calls from the international community to acknowledge its place within the politics of repression. Today, that is no longer the case.

Indeed, following decades of pressure from civil society groups and activists, the IOC in October 2014 updated host city contracts with a reference to human rights. The 2024 bid — to be announced in September 2017 — will be the IOC’s first official opportunity to demonstrate its newfound stated commitment. And yet the entity is already coming under criticism for not going far enough with the new group of potential cities between now and 2024 — a sign that public opinion on just how “apolitical” the Olympics can really be has shifted.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

When the IOC votes to award the Olympics to cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders.

The history of the Olympics reveals its contentious nature and illustrates how civil resistance has shaped or been shaped by the Games. The narrative naturally begins in 1936 in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ glory is widely remembered, what is not so well known is just how close the United States came to boycotting Hitler’s Olympics.

Concern that rising anti-Jewish discrimination should preclude Germany from hosting the 1936 Olympics began in earnest in 1933. In 1934, American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was invited to Germany to judge for himself whether or not Jewish citizens of the Third Reich faced discrimination. With no expertise in the matter, Brundage was a poor choice for such an important fact-finding mission and proved pliable in Hitler’s hands. In a trip that was deplored by the US ambassador to Germany, in Berlin Brundage was wined and dined. Following his trip, he argued that sporting events should not “interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group.” A few months later, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping German Jews of citizenship and other basic rights.

Ignoring substantive grounds for concern, and the growing domestic movement for a boycott, Brundage succeeded in convincing the AAU to support US participation in Berlin. Advocates of a boycott were narrowly defeated.

Under pressure, Apartheid South Africa drops out of 1968 Games

Smith and Carlos raised fists in Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics in symbolic act of civil resistance. Thirty years later, Avery Brundage would again come under fire leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Formed in 1967, the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a central actor utilizing the Olympics spotlight to expose widespread, systematic racism and exploitation of black athletes in the United States. The organization had five central demands, among them the removal of Avery Brundage from his then role as the president of the US Olympic Committee, and the denial of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the 1968 Olympics.

Brundage had disregarded previous demands that South Africa be banned from participating in the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpeville Massacre in March of that year. During the massacre, South African security forces opened fire on a nonviolent demonstration of some 5,000 people. For OPHR, allowing South Africa to participate in 1968 would be tantamount to failing to revoke the 1936 Games from Berlin. They announced a boycott.

 Enthusiasts for the boycott included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, months before his assassination, offered his absolute support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle.”

OPHR succeeded in one of its demands. Under the threat of boycott and related international mobilization, the IOC eventually advised South Africa not to participate. During the 1968 Games, in a well-known instance, OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving Gold and Bronze medals — in solidarity with the broader civil resistance campaign (see image).

In this way, OPHR also succeeded in establishing a repertoire for activists to utilize the spotlight of the Olympics to draw attention to oppressive conditions within host countries and also to more universal grievances.

A new millennium for the Olympics?

Activism around the 2008 Beijing Olympics was built on a similar repertoire of international mobilization to draw attention to widespread human rights violations within the host country.

When I first traveled to China in 2006, especially in Beijing, one could not escape banners proclaiming China’s motto for the Games, “同一个世界,同一个梦想,” (One World, One Dream), as China hoped to leverage the Games for increased soft power and a projection of a “harmonious society.” Two years later, this narrative was challenged at many stops along the international Olympics Torch Relay.

The torch was lit in Greece, on 24 March 2008, about a week after a security crackdown on what had begun as a nonviolent demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The demonstration resulted in an unknown number of Tibetan deaths and detentions. Images of crimson-clad monks surrounded and beaten by Chinese police shocked international audiences. For many around the world, it was the first they learned of widespread human rights concerns in China.

There were a few scattered incidents along the route but the first major demonstration took place on 6 April in London. Free Tibet flags and placards voicing myriad human rights concerns contrasted with Chinese flags and “One China” supporters. In similar rhetoric as Brundage’s toward the Berlin Olympics, Beijing torch relay spokesperson Qu Yingpu told the BBC, responding to events in England, that, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Other organized nonviolent actions in Paris, San Francisco, Southern China and elsewhere succeeded in interrupting the Torch Relay, drawing major international attention to a number of human rights issues. Sadly however, the international demonstrations ultimately had little concrete impact on the 2008 Games. What’s more, China has since then come to represent an even bigger missed opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate commitment to upholding human rights.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, human rights organizations have documented over 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention. A new criminal law along with legislation on national security and NGO management have increasingly constrained Chinese citizens from exercising their rights. Torture and enforced disappearances remain a state practice. Notwithstanding this regime’s deplorable track record, the IOC went ahead this July with awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to Beijing.

Tibetan rights protesters come face to face with pro-China counter-demonstrators along the torch route in San Francisco.

No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the dominant narrative for many focused on the Olympic Games as an institution, as a corrupt or repressive symbol.

In 2010, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported it was an historic convergence as indigenous rights defenders and poverty and civil liberties activists joined together under coalition titles such as the “2010 Welcoming Committee” and the “Olympics Resistance Network” to protest the Games and the some $1 billion dollars spent on police and security. Advocates of broad-ranging issues from women’s rights and rights of the homeless to anti-war and globalization also took part in the demonstrations. The Seattle Times traced parallels in coalition formation and other tactics in Vancouver back to the 1999 anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, my own introduction to civil resistance.

Despite the fact that the 2010 Games made history as the first time indigenous people were recognized as official partners, for many the rallying cry in Vancouver was still, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Vancouver activists raise concerns about land destruction and neglect for native peoples in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, undoubtedly LGBTI issues took center stage. Many of the tactics employed by activists over the preceding decade were repeated, from international coordination in multiple cities to boycott movements. There was also a sense of rising disgust with the IOC and the Olympics in general. How could the IOC allow such a blatant violation of IOC Principle 6 on discrimination, asked the eponymous movement.

The IOC responds to direct challenges

Human Rights Watch and others outlined the need for the IOC to change in a 2014 submission to the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This included media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and association, and nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. ” Too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” 

In a February 2015 open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA) wrote, “As you know, too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” SRA identified the need for concrete and measurable indicators in the future host city bidding process.

In late 2014, the IOC added a human rights clause, meaning countries must meet minimum standards to be awarded host. The problem is, the IOC isn’t set up to be a human rights monitoring body. It will need help, from IOC member countries and civil society.

This is a good step forward and should be lauded, with caution. Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion. But without concrete action, the IOC may inadvertently continue legitimizing repressive regimes.

Eyes on 2024 and beyond

Ongoing innovation in civil resistance and organizations such as Principle 6 and the SRA have contributed to forcing the IOC to recognize its place within the politics of repression. Decades of civil resistance succeeded in shifting the narrative.

Nevertheless, the IOC lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, other than the threat of refusal to award host city status. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should take this on as a new objective in their work around the Olympics.

These actors would benefit from tactical innovation that engages with the IOC’s updated Charter in a new, more proactive and direct way. In addition to many of the previous tactics such as boycotts or collective action, this will also at times require less disruptive actions. For example, civil resisters should deepen coalitions with human rights law practitioners, especially those most skilled in practical fact-finding and reporting. Different tactics can be combined, but they must be done so as part of a broadly inclusive grand strategy that aims to hold the IOC accountable to its recently stated embrace of human rights. If the IOC is sincere, it should welcome such civil society participation and monitoring at all phases. If it is unwilling to do so, then it makes itself vulnerable to such visible, popular nonviolent actions as those chronicled in this article.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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