It's Impossible to Separate Politics and the OlympicsRoundup
tags: South Africa, apartheid, Protest, Olympic Games
Michelle Sikes is an assistant professor of kinesiology, African studies, and history at Pennsylvania State University.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s silent gesture has reverberated across the more than 50 years since the two men thrust black-gloved fists to the sky from the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Echoes of their statement against racial injustice can be found in hammer thrower Gwen Berry’s refusal to acknowledge the American flag during the national anthem at the United States Olympic Trials. The International Olympic Committee has long sought to separate politics from sport and clearly opposes any such political expression at the Tokyo Games.
Yet, an Olympic boycott of the 1976 Montreal Games by nearly 30 African teams offers a striking historical example of how collective action can use the Games to give meaning and purpose to the widely held belief that sports must be fair and accessible to all — something that theoretically epitomizes the vision of the Olympic movement. At the center of the storm of protest was a tour of apartheid South Africa by a New Zealand rugby team.
South Africa first sent an all-White Olympic team to the 1908 London Games. For the next 52 years, all-White teams represented the majority-Black nation at the Games in all sports, flouting International Olympic Committee rules that prohibited racial discrimination.
Following victory in the 1948 South African elections, the National Party enacted sweeping legislation that forced a system of racial separation known as apartheid on the voteless Black majority. Apartheid extended and institutionalized discrimination in almost all spheres of life — including sports.
Spectators were segregated in most South African sporting venues, and Black fans were completely banned from others. White athletes enjoyed superior facilities and sufficient time and resources to train. In almost all circumstances, athletes of different races could not compete together and only White South Africans got to challenge the world’s best athletes in meaningful international events.
By the 1960s, South Africa was the target of protest at international sporting events because of its racist policies. After the Second World War, colonial rule ended across much of Africa. Newly independent countries campaigned to abolish apartheid using international institutions such as the United Nations. The Olympic movement proved to be one of the most visible international forums for drawing attention to their cause and applying pressure.
A cornerstone of the international struggle against apartheid in sport was the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA). Formed in 1966 by 32 African countries and supported by anti-apartheid activists worldwide, the SCSA brought immense pressure on the IOC to sanction South Africa. With this powerful solidarity combined with many new countries gaining Olympic membership, African leaders focused on boycotts of the Olympics, threatened and realized, as tools of change.
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