5 Olympic Games That Changed How We See Human Rights

These triumphs of the human spirit mean more than muscles and medals.

(Photo: Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Feb 6, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

The Olympics are known as a celebration of human ability and endurance—sports events, pure and simple. Every four years, in varying summers and winters, the global community watches the strongest, fastest, and most skillful among us excel or crumble under pressure.

Some Olympic Games have passed without a whiff of political incident. But other years—and surely this is one of them—social and political issues nudge sports aside on the Olympic stage. In recent months, pre-Olympic news coverage has focused on issues such as Russia's persecution of its LGBT citizens, human rights violations, and the strife that has led to terror threats in Sochi.

We can hope, as has happened in the past, that the international spotlight brought by the games may have some role in improving the lives of citizens in Russia.

"The IOC can be a driving force behind altering domestic policies of host countries and ensuring that they fulfill their commitment to international human rights," according to a study published by the Northwestern University School of Law. That's a hopeful assessment. And while it hasn't always worked (does it seem like the Beijing Olympics in 2008 changed the human rights picture in China?), we have seen moments when human rights have triumphed.

Here's a look back at some social struggles that were brought into the spotlight by the Olympics.

1936 Summer Games, Berlin: Hitler Humiliated by America's Black Athletes

Jesse Owens had already broken five world records in track and field competitions in 1935. But when the American athlete earned four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin, it was a stunning human rights victory as well as a triumph of physical prowess.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had wanted to use the Olympic Games as a showcase of German political domination and Aryan physical supremacy. But African American sprinter Owens' dominant performance could not be denied. To Hitler's dismay, Owens' victories were cheered by German spectators in Berlin, just as they were by people around the world.

1964 Summer Games, Tokyo: Sayonara, Apartheid

Traditionally, the organizers of the Olympics have not courted involvement in political issues. But in the case of South Africa's apartheid, they took a stand. The Olympic Charter states that "any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on ground of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

In 1958, a movement began to exclude South Africa from competing in the Olympic Games because of the country's policy ban on "interracial sport." It took several years for the IOC to act, but beginning in 1964 South Africa was banned from participation in the global games.

Silver medalist Elana Meyer of South Africa congratulates gold medalost Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia after the 10,000-meter final at the Barcelona Olympic Games . (Photo: Mike Powell/Allsport)

Finally, after decades of often violent struggle, South Africa's policies began to change. After apartheid was repealed, the South African Olympic team was permitted to compete in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona.

1968 Summer Games, Mexico City: Taking a Stand on the Medal Stand

Some spectators were outraged. Others were thrilled. Many were simply shocked: When gold-medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith and bronze-medal-winning sprinter John Carlos stood atop the blocks to accept their medals at the 1968 Games, each raised one black-gloved fist as an expression of frustration and solidarity over the appalling treatment of African Americans in the U.S.

USA gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos take a stand on the podium with Australian silver medalist Peter Norman. (Photo: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Both athletes suffered a backlash when they returned home, but they had accomplished something vital: Without violence, they had powerfully brought the issue of race to the international spotlight. The move was also seen as taking a stand against government aggression, on the heels of news that students had been slaughtered in the host city's streets.

Australian athlete Peter Norman didn't raise his fist that day as he accepted his silver medal alongside Smith and Carlos. But he supported their cause, and years later ESPN reported that Smith and Carlos were invited to be pallbearers at Norman's funeral.

1980 Summer Games, Moscow: The War That Never Ends

This year's Sochi Games aren't the first for the government in Moscow in which politics and sport mixed. To publicly protest the then–Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan just a few months earlier, the Olympic committees of 80 nations chose to boycott the Summer Games. The boycott was a dramatic statement, but it didn't alter the path of war between the Soviets and Afghanistan. That invasion ultimately failed. But it set in motion more than three decades of ongoing war, costing countless lives and ruining the lives of so many others—most notably the women of Afghanistan—in what was once a peaceful country.

Afghan students in Tehran protest against the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. Protesters attacked the Soviet embassy, pulling down the flag to pull up their own. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

1988 Summer Games, Seoul: Scrutiny Brought Stability

It's assumed that hosting the Olympic Games will bring a country prestige and tourism income. But in 1988, the Olympics brought the nation of South Korea a rare opportunity—to shed its reputation for corruption and instability and instead put its growing democracy on display for the world to see. It was a scandal-filled Olympiad: Boxing judges were suspended for awarding victories to South Korean competitors who had visibly been bested by American boxers, leading to an eventual change in Olympic boxing scoring policies; superstar sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and lost his gold medal in the process; and a New Zealand referee was assaulted by South Korean boxing officials. And North Korea (no surprise) boycotted the event.

But the games were a step forward for South Korea and are credited with moving the country further down the road toward a stable democracy.

Canadian Ben Johnson speeds to win the Olympic 100-meter final in a world record 9.79 seconds at Seoul Olympic Stadium. (Photo: Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

2012 Summer Games, London: Remembering Munich

In June 2012, just prior to the opening of the games in late July, the Australian House of Representatives passed a motion calling for a minute of silence at the London games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the terrorist shootings at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich. A total of 11 Israelis—six coaches and five athletes—were murdered by the Palestinian terrorists at the Munich Games, bringing global attention to the conflict that persists to this day.

Although the movement to honor these slain athletes got global support, that moment of silence was not included in the opening ceremonies of the London Games.

The Munich Olympic Stadium in September 1972 during the memorial ceremony for the Israeli athletes killed by Palestinian terrorists the day before. The Olympic flag was at half-mast. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

But there was one human rights victory to be celebrated at those games: Saudi Arabia included women on its team for the first time in 2012.