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Nichols: Politics again could hamper Olympics

POSTED: July 14, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The original Olympic Games were held in Greece from 776 BC to 393 AD. Modern Olympic Games resumed in 1859 and were international in scope.

The main symbol of modern Olympics is the flag with five interconnected circles representing the unity of peoples on the five continents of the world. The Games are thus supposed to represent international cooperation as individuals and teams of athletes compete for one of the three medals in each competition. The athletes are identified by country and the national anthem of the country of the winner is played when the medals are actually presented.

The games are divided into summer and winter Olympics, held two years apart on a four-year cycle.

The Olympic competition is supposed to be above politics. But the games have had deep political implications.

Adolf Hitler was furious when black American athlete Jesse Owens won the long jump competition in 1936. In the Summer Games in Munich in 1972, members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered by a terrorist group called Black September.

During the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, a bomb blast went off in Centennial Park that killed two and injured 111 others. American terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was accused of setting the bomb.

In January 1980, while I was flying with 22 students en route from New York to Moscow, President Carter canceled participation of all American athletes from the Summer Olympics scheduled to be held later that year in the Soviet Union. It was a response to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

That study tour was the most difficult of all for my students. The Soviet Union had spent huge amounts of money in building facilities and dormitories for the athletic events to take place. The government had explained to its own people that after the Summer Olympics were over, the facilities would be open for continued sporting contests, and the dormitories would be adapted into much needed housing units.

The Russians we talked to were furious at the American withdrawal, and many thought that our removal would cancel the entire Summer Olympics and leave the Soviet Union deep in debt.

Only restaurants already reserved for us were open to us. My students were denied access to any cafes and bars not on the reserved list.

I remember in Moscow there was just one place open late at night, on a street called Arbat. I warned the students not to go to that street because criminals might be there to prey on tourists. So, of course, the students did exactly what I had warned them not to do. Most of them went in a group to the Arbat and tried to get into a nightclub.

The watchman at the door saw their American jeans and shoes and asked if they were Americans? They answered in English, "No, we are Polish."

The watchman then spoke a few Polish words and said "Americanskis, go back to hotel."

Although I agreed with Carter that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was illegal, I thought he punished the American athletes who had been preparing hard for the Olympic competitions and who could never use the results of their training in actual competition.

This year’s Summer Olympics are scheduled to be held Aug. 8-24 in Beijing, China. Back in March, some priests in Tibet rioted and the Chinese communist government harshly repressed the rioters. That focused attention on the poor record the Chinese government has had concerning human rights. China is still a communist dictatorship at the top, although some private capitalism is permitted at the bottom.

I do not know if any country is boycotting the Summer Olympics, but I know that several world leaders will not attend the opening ceremony as a symbol of protest.

Like Russia in 1980, the Chinese government has spent huge amounts for the facilities of the games. It has prepared 37 venues for competitions, 32 in Beijing. Some 19 of these are newly constructed at a reported cost of $2 billion. Billions more have been spent on environmental projects.

I have seen reports that many tickets remain unsold. Tourists may be concerned with the events of earthquakes and floods in China, and the remaining problem of Tibet.

In July, I will visit Mongolia for my grandson’s wedding to a beautiful graduate student. I am glad I will be there before the rush of the Summer Olympics in China. But I will watch the competitions like most and hope our athletes win more often than lose, and hope no terrorist event takes place to mar the spirit of best in the world athletic competitions.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears frequently and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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