The Politics of the Olympics

Regularly commanding unparalleled attention worldwide from both the general public and the media, sport provides perhaps one of the greatest stages to showcase a political message. As Nelson Mandela, one of the foremost (and few) political leaders to harness sport’s political power effectively, says about its potential: ‘sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does’. Subsequently, it is unsurprising that, in spite of the fifth chapter of the Olympic Charter stating that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas’, several politically-influenced incidents have occurred during past Olympic Games – the world’s largest sporting event. In 1936, Adolf Hitler exploited the Berlin Games to substantiate his ideology of Aryan racial superiority, an ideology that was rendered risible by Jesse Owens, a black athlete from the United States, who went on to win four gold medals during the Games – more than any other athlete in the whole competition. In 1972, during another German-hosted Games, a Palestinian terrorist organization, Black September, broke into the Israeli quarters in the Olympic Village in Munich, taking members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage and, eventually, killing six coaches and five athletes after the Israeli government dismissed the terrorists’ demands.

Fortunately, the Olympic Games has not been sullied by any political boycotting or terrorist attacks since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when Eric Rudolph, an anti-gay and anti-abortion terrorist from the ‘Army of God’, placed the three pipe bombs, which were surrounded by nails, in the Centennial Olympic Park that killed two people and injured 111 others. However, that does not mean that politics has not meddled with the Olympics since the start of the second millennia Indeed, many economists, such as Dr. Curt Hamakawa and Dr. Elizabeth Elam from Western New England University, have regarded the architectural spectacle and organizational brilliance of China’s 2008 Olympics in Beijing as their deliberate (and successful) attempt to advertise themselves a ‘full-fledged first-world economic power‘. The world’s political situation, then, often overshadow each Olympic Games, and this year’s Olympics in London is no exception to the rule. With the UK’s economy currently floundering in a double-dip recession, London 2012, which the British Olympic Association secured whilst the UK was still profiting from a period of consistent economic growth, has provided the country’s politicians with a prime opportunity to exhibit the UK (and particularly London – one of the world’s leading financial and cultural centres) to potential investors. ‘Britain is back open for business‘, declared David Cameron at the British Business Embassy’s Global Investment Conference on the day preceding the Opening Ceremony of the Games, ‘and we are committed to supporting global growth with open trade between our nations’. To an audience containing senior figures from some of the world’s leading business, he then concluded: ‘So invest in Britain, partner with Britain, not just to invest in this country, but because this is the place, the hub, from which your company can grow and expand’. Other members of Mr. Cameron’s coalition cabinet have also reinforced their leader’s positive message about the UK. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, stated that the Olympics provides a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to boost the UK’s growth potential’, and the Chancellor, George Osborne, said: ‘Britain has always been a country that is open to the world. In hosting the Olympic Games, we are showcasing that openness’.

Behind the foreground, therefore, of the thousands of Olympic athletes striving to claim a much-coveted medal, the UK’s politicians, by using London 2012 as the ultimate (and possibly most expensive) worldwide advert, are striving equally as hard to salvage their country’s precarious economic situation. However, have the Olympic Games always been a financial success for other host nations? In short: no. With its debt of $1.5 billion from the cost of their Olympic Stadium’s construction, which was only paid off in December 2009, the 1976 Olympics in Montreal effectively bankrupted the city. Furthermore, some economic commentators, such as Nick Malkoutzis from Bloomberg Businessweek, have suggested that Greece’s appetite for extravagance in preparation for the 2004 Olympics in Athens – its overall cost of €9 billion made it the most expensive Olympic Games at the time – foreshadowed Greece becoming the first EU country to be subjected to the European Commission’s fiscal monitoring in 2005. Equally, though, there have been a number of Olympics Games that have proven to be a tremendous economic success for the host nation. In 1984, contrasting with Montreal’s financial nightmare in the preceding Games, the Olympics in Los Angeles made a $250 million profit; after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea’s economy grew by 12%; and the 1992 Olympics held in Barcelona sparked the inception of the city’s cultural and financial resurgence.

Like London 2012, Barcelona’s Olympic Games were held whilst Europe’s economy was beleaguered by recession. Consequently, its long-lasting success may well be a source of guidance and inspiration for our politicians. Indeed, the London Olympics’ legacy for the city’s commerce has been an area of particular focus for Olympic Minister, Hugh Robertson: businesses, he told The Evening Standard, need to take a ‘long term view‘ on the effect of the Olympics and expect ‘a huge payback in terms of tourism and spend on both the economy and in the retail sector in the years ahead’. The Cultural Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, supported Mr. Robinson’s outlook: ‘London is already one of the world’s greatest cities, but these Games have made it iconic and if you have a business in London, in the years to come you are going to benefit massively from the huge amount of publicity, PR, promotion and marketing that you get from having a Games in London’. However, with the British Business Embassy’s forecast of the Olympic and Paralympic games generating ‘£11 billion in benefits to the UK economy’, could they alleviate the country’s current economic issues? Goldman Sachs, according to MindfulMoney, ‘predicts a short term boost to the economy of 0.3% to 0.4% in Q3 – enough to perhaps [sic.] temporarily lift the UK out of recession‘, and Capital Economics, according to The Guardian, concur that they could help ‘the economy grow by 0.8% in the third quarter‘ with a ‘temporary boost’. It seems, therefore, that the financial benefits of the Olympics could be regarded as both a short and long term solution to the UK’s continuing unstable financial circumstances. Like the many athletes we have seen recently peering up at the Olympic Stadium’s electronic screens, though, we must wait nervously to see the results.

Published on The Student Journals


  1. Reblogged this on The Ash Cloud and commented:
    A great analysis of the political side of the Olympic Games from Ben Stupples.

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