It was more than a hundred years ago when Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, designed those five intertwining rings on the Olympic symbol which have become so familiar around the world. And while the rings were meant to symbolize the world uniting under the banner of athletic competition, they have in many instances come to represent the opposite.
From the infamous Olympics of 1936 and 1972 to the doping and judging scandals of the 1970s and 80s to the boycott-marred competition of 1980 and 1984, politics has often upstaged Olympic athletes who spend countless lonely hours over many years training for their big moment on the world stage. And Germany was ground zero for much of it.
Adolf Hitler, fast approaching the apex of power, set the stage for turning the Olympics into a political theatre when Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. Emboldened by the recent victory of German Max Schmeling over black American Joe Louis in a much-ballyhooed heavyweight boxing match (a loss Louis would later avenge), the Fuhrer set his sights on an international display of Aryan superiority. He boldly proclaimed that Berlin would be the proving ground for his twisted creed, and sent a German sprinter out to light the Olympic torch, confident that he would defeat Jesse Owens, the courageous son of a black sharecropper who had become an American star in track and field. But Owens destroyed the plan by winning not just the 100-meter sprint, but three other gold medals – in the 200 meters, 4x100m relay and long jump – smashing multiple records in the process.
While Owens’ triumph ultimately served as a short-lived inspiration to both black Americans and a world seeking refuge from the coming Nazi storm, there was nothing inspirational about the next time Germany hosted the Olympics in 1972. Those Munich Summer Games were dubbed “Die Heiteren Spiele,” or “the cheerful Games” by a West German government anxious to present a kind face to the world after the atrocities of World War II (and World War I not long before). But few will remember any of the competition that year because of a cold-blooded act of extreme political terrorism one week into the competition that consumed the world’s attention. In what came to be known as “The Munich Massacre,” eight members of the Black September Palestinian terrorist organization broke into the Olympic Village and took nine Israeli athletes, coaches and officials hostage. All the hostages were murdered, including the last five, who were machine-gunned to death.
While democratic West Germany took many years to live down the anti-semitic atrocity at the very games in which they had pledged to demonstrate the opposite, communist-controlled East Germany was at the heart of another Olympic scandal. It was centered on another attempt to demonstrate the superiority of one group over another – only this time it was not racial, but political groups. The totalitarian East German regime, under the control of the Soviet Union, sent judges to the Olympics over many years who would transparently press their thumb on the scales, providing over-the-top scores to their countrymen and ridiculously low scores to all other athletes, particularly Americans. This ultimately forced western judges to over-compensate in the other direction. And this was all on top of the equally obvious use of performance-enhancing drugs by many East German athletes, particularly women. In fact, the doping was so flagrant that even today, muscular women are often referred to as looking “like East German swimmers.”
But there was far less reason for the East Germans to cheat in 1980, as they didn’t have the Americans to kick around. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan the year before, President Jimmy Carter decided that the way to punish the Kremlin was to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. Many believed the ones who were ultimately punished were the American athletes who had invested their lives in one shot at the gold. There was also the fear that such a decision would mean the next Summer Games, set for Los Angeles in 1984, would almost automatically be subject to a Soviet boycott. Those fears were realized when the Soviets were indeed no-shows in LA. Thus, cold war politics all but destroyed the legitimacy of two successive Summer Olympic Games.
Thanks in large part to these and other less prominent, politically-motivated black marks on an otherwise proud Olympic history, there is no understating the constant concern of Olympic organizers about world political tensions, and even more so acts of political violence at their most high-profile event on earth. With the uniquely divisive Donald Trump in the White House and the world constantly on guard against the ever-growing threat of terrorism – and despite unparalleled security lined up in the hot spot known as the Korean Peninsula – we would be well-advised not to dismiss the chance that such a thing could happen again in 2018.