When Sports and Politics Collide

Article excerpt

Along with showcasing the world's best athletes, the Olympics offer a unique glimpse into history and race relations.

When TV news images showed pro-Tibet sympathizers dramatically disrupting the international Olympic torch relay in multiple cities earlier this year, Dr. Yosay Wangdi's faculty colleagues throughout academia flooded her with e-mails.

"They wanted to know how my students were responding," says Wangdi, an assistant professor of history at Grand Valley State University. "Over and over, they said their students were very passionate, very sympathetic to Tibet."

With the eyes of the world focused on the Olympic Games in Beijing this month, Wangdi, who's of Tibetan ancestry, expects to hear from colleagues again. She also expects her students this fall to continue discussing Tibet's longstanding conflict with China, just as they did this past spring when news reports surfaced of a crackdown that sometimes turned violent against anti-Chinese demonstrators in Tibet.

For many Americans, TV and other media provide their only contact with the Olympics. Yet scholars who incorporate sports into their class lessons believe the broadcasts offer a unique glimpse into history and race relations. Indeed, the modern-day games are known as much for politics, civil rights, anti-apartheid, terrorism and boycotts as they are for seemingly superhuman sporting feats.

Dr. Peniel Joseph, an associate professor of African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, believes the social and political undercurrents surrounding Olympic history can teach college students lessons that supplement what's covered in a classroom.

"Jesse Owens and his four gold medals are an example of citizenship and meritocracy," Joseph says, referring to the U.S. track star who gained worldwide stature in the 1936 games in Berlin. "The Olympics show the global nature of sport. They've been ahead of the times in terms of race."

However, academia can be slow, scholars say, to embrace Olympians of color who have been ostracized by society at large. In 2005, for instance, San Jose State University awarded honorary doctorates to former students John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Officials there dedicated a 20-foot-high sculpture on campus in the likenesses of Carlos and Smith in a Black power salute. The sculpture was commissioned in response to grassroots calls from students and faculty there wanting them recognized and honored for their nonviolent protest 37 years earlier. Smith and Carlos were SJSU students and members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights when they competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. There, Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter dash, Carlos the bronze. But what they became known worldwide for, and shunned for years, was their action on the victory platform. During the award ceremony, Carlos and Smith, heads bowed, medals encircling their necks, stood with Australia's silver medalist Peter Norman. Carlos and Smith each raised a clenched, dark-gloved fist toward the sky in silent protest of America's civil rights failures. Photos of them were seen everywhere and quickly became among the most famous in Olympic history. And as swiftly as the images were seen was the negative reaction to them. Many White Americans were outraged. Smith and Carlos were expelled from the athletes' village and returned to this country in disgrace.

But with passage of time can come understanding, and even pride and appreciation for what was once vilified. Dr. Richard Crepeau, professor of history at the University of Central Florida, says his students are typically conflicted and confused when learning about Smith's and Carlos' actions in 1968. Among other things, Crepeau teaches the history of sport in America as well as race and sports.

"To them, the 1960s were a strange and weird time," he says, referring to his students. "They have an inability to relate to what was going on at the time. …