An Uneasy Discourse: Salt Lake 2002 and Olympic Protest

Article excerpt

The general public's interests in the Olympics are the ceremonies, traditions and athletic competitions, not the cultural, economic, social, or, especially, political aspects of the Games. (1) Whenever the Games are threatened by political protests or demonstrations, boycotts or terrorism, commentators typically criticize the unwarranted intrusion of politics. Despite Jacque Rogge's assertion that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is not a political organization, politics and protests have always been part of the modern Games. (2)

Historically, the Olympics have experienced three kinds of political protests: 1) protests within the Olympic Movement--IOC expulsions and national boycotts; 2) protests within the Games, notably by athletes; and 3) protests held in conjunction with the Olympics. Notwithstanding widespread criticism of Beijing 2008 because of China's position on human rights, Tibet, Darfur and Myanmar, an improved international political climate and the liberalized domestic policies of most nations have decreased the likelihood of disruptive protests within the Olympic Movement, and given the increasingly high-stakes of athletic competition and greater organizational controls over athletes, protests within the Games seem a remote possibility. (3) However, the growth of the Olympics into a worldwide commercialized, televised entertainment spectacle ensures that the Games and the Olympic Movement will engender ever-more criticism and protest. Thus the third kind of political protest, demonstrations held concurrently with the Games is now a primary agenda issue for local organizing committees.

The Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics is an instructive case study of how a host city and Olympic organizing committee dealt with the difficult and inherently contradictory effort to balance free speech with public security and efficient Games operations. (4) There are three interrelated concerns: 1) the measures adopted to control both peaceful demonstrations and potential disorders; 2) the community wide debate about the control measures, the propriety of Olympic protests, the nature and protection of free speech, and the obligation to protect the Games and spectators from unwarranted and potentially harmful intrusions; and 3) the agenda and conduct of protest groups.

Even before Salt Lake City was chosen on June 15, 1995, to host the 2002 Games, Olympic organizers and city officials began preparations for the safety of athletes and the security of competition venues with an eye toward protest demonstrations. (5) The concern initially seemed exaggerated since the Winter Games, unlike the Summer Olympiads, had not been notable targets of protest. Accordingly, security for the Winter Olympics always had been considerably less extensive than for the Summer Games, especially after the terrorist attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics. (6) Moreover, as Mike Moran, spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee noted, demonstrations during the past three Olympics held in the United States--Lake Placid 1980, Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996--were "minimal and caused no disruption whatsoever." (7)

However, several circumstances made the Salt Lake City Organizing Committee (SLOC) and city officials especially concerned about possible disturbances. The worldwide media exposure accorded the first Winter Games held in America since 1980 itself presented an especially attractive venue for groups to present their views on a variety of domestic and international issues. Moreover, the dominant role of the U. S. in international affairs made Salt Lake a ready target for large, potentially violent demonstrations concerning globalization issues. Planners were mindful of the tumultuous World Trade Organization riots in Seattle in November 1999 that resulted in 1,300 arrests and millions of dollars in property damage, of the numerous protests threatened but not realized for the Sydney 2000 Summer Games, and of the nationwide demonstrations in August 2001 held in solidarity with the protests at the Group of Eight Summit in Genoa, Italy. …