Politics and sport have always combined to produce some particularly ugly moments such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics, hijacked by the Nazis as a hideous propaganda exercise. In Australia the 1971 South African Springbok tour was met with numerous anti-apartheid protests but a decade later in New Zealand a similar tour led almost to a civil war. The country was divided as some 150,000 people took part in over 200 demonstrations with numerous arrests and charges laid.
With only a week before the Tokyo Olympics, Japan has long been divided as to whether they should be called off for the second year running. Polls show that some 80% of the population would be happy to see the games either abandoned or rescheduled when the pandemic no longer poses a threat.
Demonstrations against the Olympics have been essentially low key but perhaps the most symbolic was the case of a 53 year old Japanese woman who aimed a water pistol at the Olympic Torch whilst it was being carried through Sinba Park in Mito. The woman was quickly apprehended by security and later charged although her tiny water pistol would never have put out the flame. A fire extinguisher would have done a much better job!
The Olympics have always been highly politicised despite the much promoted hype that it is a gathering of international friendship, where winning gold is only secondary to the actual endeavour and spirit of taking part. Tell that to today’s titans of international sport, China, the USA, Great Britain, Russia and Germany who have long seen the Olympics as a kind of cold war fought in athletic stadiums and the other arenas. Sporting prowess is irrevocably intertwined with political power and prestige and these countries invest millions in nurturing their athletes.
Whilst the Olympics have always been beset with underlying political motivation, the IOC have traditionally come down heavily on any athletes making a political statement during the actual games. Sometimes this is impossible to suppress such as the infamous ‘Blood In The Water’ water polo match between Russia and Hungary at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Set against the background of the Hungarian revolution in the same year, anti-Soviet sentiment ensured that this was more than just a competitive sporting contest and a veritable battle took place.
A far more sombre protest took place at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 when two Afro-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave a fisted salute and wore human rights badges during their medal presentation and the playing of the US national anthem. Both were vilified for their actions in the popular media with Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president commenting, “The action of these negroes was an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States.” Brundage, it should be noted, had long been accused of being one of the United States’ most prominent Nazi sympathisers even after the outbreak of the Second World War.
The third man on the podium at that time was Australian Peter Norman, who also wore a human rights badge and indicated to Smith and Carlos beforehand that he would stand with them. All three were treated as outcasts for decades to follow and it wasn’t until years later that it was acknowledged how shamefully they had been originally treated. Smith, Carlos and Norman became the best of friends and in 2012, six years after Peter Norman died, the Australian House of Representatives formally passed an apology to Norman, with MP Andrew Leigh telling Parliament that Norman’s gesture “was a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality.”
In Sydney all three have been immortalized in the iconic Three Proud People mural in Newtown, which has been lovingly embraced by the public at large and even given a makeover to preserve its permanency in 2019 following an $11,000 restoration grant from the City Of Sydney.
It’s not hard to see Japan’s decision to proceed with the Olympics as the result of international pressure from the IOC and political bludgeoning from participating countries – in particular those with the biggest financial commitment to sport. How Tokyo plays out with empty stadiums and the inevitable Covid outbreaks remains to be seen, but my sympathies are with the brave Japanese lady with the water pistol.