Security at Games an Issue since 424 BC
At the heart of the Summer Olympics underway in London is international sportsmanship and the spirit of healthy competition, the prime reason Baron Pierre de Coubertain of France spearheaded the reincarnation of the games in the late 19th century. Nevertheless, at various times in its history, the Olympics have been hijacked by politics, protests and terrorism.
The London Olympics officially are designated as the 30th games, since the modern competition was reborn in 1896. Yet technically, it is No. 27, because the 6th games were cancelled in 1916 due to the First World War, and the 12th and 13th in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War.
Over the years, some countries have refused to put aside their differences to revel in athletic prowess. And the games have also proved to be too tempting an international stage to ignore for the promotion and publicity of a wide range of issues outside the realm of sports. The threat of violence hovers over the games, which explains why security expenses at this year's Olympics are estimated to be $874 million, though less (at least for now) than the $1.5 billion spent on security at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
You can go a lot further back than 1896 to find trouble at the Olympics. Sparta was banned from the ancient games in the fifth century due to an alliance between Athens and Eleans, and security had to be beefed up at the games in 424 BC to guard against a Spartan attack. In 365 BC, the Eleans were unable to compete at the 104th Olympics when the Arcadians and the Pisatans gained control of the Altis (the site of Olympia). Once the Eleans drove their enemies out, they ruled that the 104th Olympiad was null and void.
The blurring of politics and sports in the modern era began in Berlin in 1936. Five years earlier, the International Olympic Committee had awarded Germany the games as a gesture of goodwill more than a decade after the First World War had ended. The IOC, however, had not counted on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis being in power.
For Hitler, the Olympics proved to be a powerful propaganda tool. During the two weeks the event was held in Berlin in August 1936, the Nazis highlighted their many economic achievements, while downplaying their racist anti-Jewish policies that nearly led to a boycott by the United States. In Canada, the boycott issue equally received much attention, including at a celebrated debate at the University of Manitoba in November 1935, in which a boycott was favoured. But Canadian sports officials never truly considered it an option.
The Nazis reinstituted the ancient torch relay, now considered an enduring symbol of the games, and Leni Riefenstahl brilliantly captured the entire spectacle in her highly regarded 1938 film Olympia. While it is no doubt true that Hitler and his top officers were not thrilled that African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals, a repudiation of Aryan superiority, the Nazi leader did not intentionally snub Owens as is widely believed. Hitler was not even in the Berlin stadium when Owens was presented with his medals. As Owens later commented, it was, in fact, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt who snubbed him by not publicly acknowledging Owens's triumphant performance.
The Olympics have never been divorced from international events. …