Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Olympic Games and the United Nations: World Peace Intentions

by: Paige Battcher

The Olympics have been linked to politics since their revival in 1896. There are many ways that the Olympic Games can and have been used as a venue for political action.(1) In what capacity has the international organization of the Olympic Games been entangled in political agendas worldwide, to what degree has this challenged or promoted the overarching Olympic Movement goal of international peace, and how might parallels to the United Nations –both structurally and theoretically –be useful in evaluating the future success of the Olympics to create world peace?


The Olympic Games, from its roots in Olympia, Greece centuries before Christ, to Vancouver, Canada in 2010, continues to be an international organization of nations, athletes and spectators –united for the underlying goal of creating a more just and peaceful world. By its very nature, the organization of the Olympic Games measurably influences international politics. This paper will discuss a brief history of the Olympic Movement, its structure and operations, its influence on and within global politics during the Cold War, and infer similarities the Olympic Movement shares –structurally and theoretically –with the United Nations. Considering the similarities that the Olympic Movement and U.N. share, including principles that guide both organizations to interact with one another, it is clear to see that the international organization of the Olympic Games cannot be devoid of political influence, but that it may very well provide the U.N. an extended outlet for promoting peace. Exploring this idea will require a look at how both organizations function, how they interacted during a specific global security issue (specifically throughout the Cold War era –examples of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games), and how they intend to build world peace.


The modern day Olympic Movement began, as a revival of the ancient games, in 1896 by Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman, sports enthusiast and international organizer. De Coubertin’s original goal in reviving the games was to increase French nationalism and lift the spirits of his countrymen after defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. (2) The Olympic Games he organized in Athens, Greece in 1896, were met by moderate enthusiasm by those who attended as well as by de Coubertin’s fellowmen, yet he was confident and determined that the Games could highlight athleticism, ignite national pride, and even replace military warfare with athletic competition on an international scale. (3) In 1894, de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Since then, the IOC has supervised significant changes and developments in the Olympic Games: the duration of the Games shortened from a period of 3-4 months to just over two weeks, the number of participating states grew from a dozen to over 200, and the number of participating athletes surged from nearly 240 to 11,000 at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.


As founded by de Coubertin, the International Olympic Committee consisted of an executive board of 15 of his friends, and was meant to serve as an exclusive club. In spite of the multitude of changes to the Olympic Games, the IOC has still managed to keep this body of directors quite exclusive, “with membership available by invitation only.” (4)  Created in 1945 and carried forward until today, the United Nations Charter has maintained a similar group of 15 elites –both permanent and non-permanent member states –with the establishment of the Security Council, the organ of the U.N. primarily responsible for international peace. In many respects, these two committees, charged with seeking and maintaining world accord, were keep small for reasons of efficiency and are essential decision-making bodies of these large international organizations. There are stark differences in the functionality and power of these two groups, particularly if you consider the military capabilities that can be recommended by the U.N. Security Council, limited only by the veto power of the permanent members. The IOC is a decision-making body, quick to respond to issues that threaten the progress of the Olympic Movement, yet its power is limited to the relative strength of the Olympic Movement itself (for example, if states have little interest in participating in the Games, the IOC has little influence). Another noteworthy contrast is that members of the Security Council are diplomats of a particular state, to the U.N.; whereas, members of the IOC are IOC diplomats, to their home state. De Coubertin established this approach in the Olympic Charter to prevent politics of the member states from controlling the IOC. (5)

Much like the U.N., the IOC is a massive “umbrella organization” which coordinates hundreds of agencies worldwide. In fact, the IOC is primarily concerned with three groups of organizations: 1) National Olympic Committees (NOCs), responsible for organizing teams of athletes and regulating sport within their respective countries –there are 204 NOCs or member states, 2) the organizing committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGs) which are responsible for hosting the Olympics and are dismantled upon completion of the Games –for example, the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is responsible for staging the 2012 Summer Olympics , and 3) the numerous International Federations (IFs) of various sports, responsible for regulating rules and standards in their sport. (6) Finally, 22 IOC Commissions are used for administrative functions, including Finance, Marketing, Medical, Judicial, International Relations, and Women in Sport. (7)

Similar in nature to most professional sporting events, the financial driver of the Olympics is broadcast television. From 2005 to 2008 alone, the sale of worldwide broadcast rights provided to the IOC surpassed $2.56 billion, more than half of its total revenues. Interestingly, the IOC relies heavily on the United States for the bulk of its revenue, from public and private sources, especially from the National Broadcast Company (NBC), which paid around $2 billion for the right to broadcast the Olympics in the United States, during the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Games. (8) The U.N. most notably relies on 8 states (with less than 5% of the votes) to pay 75% of its budget, and in 1945 the United States paid nearly 40% of the budget. Intuitively this situation can make these conglomerate international organizations subject to the whims of the American agenda –more specifically to the American dollar –an example of which being, the financial perils experienced by the Soviet Union as a result of the U.S. boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games in Moscow.


The political climate during the Cold War era provided to be problematic for the actions of both the Security Council (9) and the IOC’s executive board. As the support of the Olympic Games waxed and waned during the height of the Cold War and financial pressures grew alongside threats to security, the stage was set for the Olympic Movement to become a playground for politics.

Post World War II brought about the growing strength of the superpowers USSR and the U.S. in the Cold War era. This dynamic predisposed international organizations to spend the next several years critically demonstrating allegiance or neutrality to these two superpowers, in order to avoid nuclear fallout. The scare tactics, propaganda and political muscling of the Soviet Union and the U.S. within the United Nations also drastically influenced the Olympic Movement during much of the 1980s. Below is a look at two examples: the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.

The Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow

Following the Soviet’s advances in Afghanistan months before the Summer Games in 1980, the United States, led by President Jimmy Carter, staged the largest boycott in Olympic history, with nearly 65 nations joining in the refusal to participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The announced goal of the boycott was to send a strong message to the Soviet Union to remove its military control of Afghanistan and denounce its wrong-doings to the world. As the Soviet Union’s presence on the United Nations Security Council made any action by that body subject to veto, and following Carter’s decision that “direct military action was not advisable,” the option to boycott the Olympics was discussed as a way to engage the world in a widespread campaign to discredit the Soviet Union’s actions, and thereby destroy any effort on the part of the Soviet Union to gain respect or legitimacy among the states of the world. (10)  It is possible to contrive this concept as a very loose form of collective security, in which the collectivity of boycotting countries could potentially send a strong enough message to the Soviet Union to give up military force and adopt peace, or else risk being outcast by the majority. The Carter administration saw boycotting the Olympics as non-violent yet certainly punitive course of action, as it was hoped the financial and athletic weakening of the Games would tarnish the image of the Soviet Union in the eyes of world citizens.

In terms of success, the number of states who joined the U.S. boycott was impressive but partly insignificant, for the reason that some of the U.S.’s long-standing allies including France and Great Britain actually joined the Games despite the request to boycott. (11) In fact, the number of nations that boycotted the Games was substantially lower than the 104 states, who at the United Nations, condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and called for the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. (12) Likewise, there was a mixed outcome in terms of athletic weakening of the events and the actual accomplishment of that goal. Some nations that competed were pleased to win their first medals at the Games, and the Soviet teams fared quite well in the absence of stronger competitors. Boycott aside, thirty-six world records and thirty-nine Olympic records were broken at the 1980 Moscow Games. (13) The financial impact on the other hand, was quite successful, providing a decisive blow to the Games in Moscow to the tune of an estimated $150 million deficit –from the decline in expected U.S. broadcasting revenues and anticipated revenue from Western tourists. (14)

Continued repercussions of the 1976 Montreal Olympics boycott

The IOC had outlined in a resolution to remain neutral of politics, following the previous boycott by 22 African nations of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, and once again the IOC was virtually powerless to prevent a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. The 1976 boycott, in an attempt to demolish apartheid, received enough international support to warrant a comment from the Chairman of the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid, who called the boycott a “noble act.” From that point, many of the resolutions passed by the United Nations on apartheid included “appeals to world sporting organizations and governments to sever all sporting ties with South Africa. (15) Even before the Moscow boycott, the international sporting world had been drawn into the negotiating chambers of the United Nations –perhaps in some regard, providing the United Nations a channel of containing political turmoil while keeping the spotlight elsewhere: on sports. In the end, the IOC found limited options to deter future boycotts and “remain neutral of politics,” other than to expel the participating countries from joining the Games, but even this option was viewed undesirable to the IOC, not wanting to harm the dreams of innocent athletes.

The Boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles

Just as quickly as the 1984 bid was awarded to the Los Angeles games, the Soviet Union began stirring up what was seen by some as a retaliatory boycott. The cause to boycott the Los Angeles Games was allegedly the Soviet Union’s concern “over the safety of their athletes in what seemed like a hostile city. (16)  Ultimately, a record number of countries participated in the Games, more world records were broken, and the Los Angeles Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games recorded one of the largest surpluses in Olympic history; despite the 14 nation boycott. Once again, the IOC was forced to resolve that boycotts and politically polarizing situations were perhaps out of their control, and fundamentally unavoidable considering the number of states participating in the modern Games. Therefore, it turned IOC attention to Olympic Games security and making sure the Games were safe for all involved. In turn, this resulted in the growing strength of the Olympics into what it is today, indirectly giving the IOC a greater, more tangible understanding of their policies and political power in world order.


In 1992, the IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called for a modern day version of the ancient Olympic truce, calling for a ceasefire worldwide during the Games; his call was heard by none other than U.N. Secretariat Kofi Annan who supported the resolution, which is now called upon every two years for the Olympics. Through the brief evaluation of hostile boycotts of the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games, it becomes more comprehensible that the IOC’s relative weakness to stay neutral of politics, or even deter the Games from becoming a political playground, allows at times, the United Nations to mediate international politics with a focus on sport rather than violence. The Olympic Movement is too large to remain separate of global politics, but it will continue to promote world peace through the accomplishment of secure and safe Olympic Games; free of terrorism and a safe haven for international athletes, diplomats, and spectators to bridge friendships, in a politically healthy manner, with people from across the globe.

Works Cited:
1. Scott Rosner and Deborah Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans and Boycotts on Effectuating International Political and Economic Change, Vol 11:1, p. 27, Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law (2009).
2. Allen Guttman, The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games, pp. 7-9, University of Illinois Press (1992).
3. David Miller, Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC 1896-2004, p. 23, Mainstream Publishing (2003).
4. Lord Killanin, My Olympic Years, p. 13, William and Marrow & Co., (1983).
5. Id. at 4.
6. Scott R. Rosner and Kenneth L. Shropshire, The Business of Sports, pp. 395-398, Jones & Bartlett Pub. (2004).
7. Olympic.org, The Organization: Commissions, “Commissions” tab, www.olympic.org/en/content/The-IOC (2009).
8. Tripp Mickle, IOC Shifts from Dependence on U.S. Revenue, SportsBusiness Journal, Oct. 12 2009.
9. Margaret P. Karns and Karen A. Mingst, “The Major Organs of the U.N.,” International Organizations: The Politics and Processes of Global Governance, p. 127, Lynne Rienner Publishers
10. Derick L. Hulme, Jr., The Political Olympics: Moscow, Afghanistan, and the 1980 U.S. Boycott, p. ix, Praeger (1990).
11. International Olympic Committee, Factsheet: The Summer Olympic Game (2008), available at http://www.olympic.org/documents/reports/en/en_report_1138.pdf.
12. Id. at 1, p. 50.
13. Id. at 10.
14. Robert K. Barney, Stephen R. Wenn, & Scott G. Martyn, Selling the Five Rings: The International Olympic Committee and the Rise of Olympic Commercialism, p. 148, The University of Utah Press, (2002).
15. Associated Press, U.N. Official Call Boycott “Noble Act,” N.Y. times, July 27, 1976.
16. Bill Shaikin, Sport and Politics: The Olympics and the Los Angeles Games 38 (Praeger 1988).


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John said...

Dear Sir/Madam

I thought you might like to read this story which appeared in the media recently. The story is about a
young boy who wanted to hold a Peace March during the closing ceremony of the 1956 Melbourne
Olympic Games. He wanted to promote peace during the Olympic Games. The IOC adopted the boy's
idea for every Olympic Closing Ceremony. A very interesting story.


Yours faithfully

John Wing
44 0208 9957870

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