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Politics and the Olympics are inseparable

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By Rick Howell

As we enjoy the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, no one wants to say out loud what we’re all thinking: Will there be a terrorist attack before it’s all done?
    A Muslim separatist group that launched such attacks in December has pledged to strike again during these Olympics. Hopefully, those plans will be thwarted. But few seem to have much confidence in Russian President Vladimir Putin to prevent it.
    Putin would like this to be an error-free Olympics that would showcase what he sees as the best of his country in the “democratic” post-Soviet era. But much of the rest of the world doesn’t see much democracy in the way he rules the country.
    The potential for terrorism during these games is yet another example that Olympic competition simply cannot be divorced from the political turmoil present in any given year.
    It’s always been this way, yet many people still try to insist that, somehow, nations of the world can get together for several weeks and compete athletically in a politics-free zone.
    Adolf Hitler was hoping for that when he staged the 1936    Olympics in Germany, wanting – as Putin does now – for the world to see his Third Reich in a positive light.
    But the Americans had a few black athletes on their team, and Jesse Owens not only embarrassed Hitler by winning four Gold Medals, but he gave the lie to the Fuhrer’s “Aryan supremacy” nonsense, too.
    Owens’ achievements clearly had a political impact, as well as being a personal triumph for him and the United States (which had its own “white supremacy” evils back home).
    Closer to the modern era, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter decided that the U.S. would boycott the Olympics as a protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His decision was unpopular at the time, and remains so today.
    But all those events aren’t the same as an athlete using his or her platform provided by the Olympics to make a political statement. According to one poll this year, 82 percent of Americans don’t think that should happen.
    Yet, in 1968, some people found it hard to argue with when American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos did exactly that, raising their arms in a Black Power salute while on the medal platform.
    They were criticized, even derided, for it, and they were sent home from the Mexico City games. Worse, they were forbidden from any more Olympic competition the rest of their lives.
    To many, that last part in particular – a lifetime ban from the Olympics – seemed extreme, and basically reflected both the political views and the vast power of Avery Brundige, the then-president of the International Olympic Committee.
    As we know, 1968 was a bad time in the world, but especially in the United States. Smith and Carlos were politically aware people. As black Americans, particularly, they were trying to absorb the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the perception that the civil rights movement faced new hostilities, especially if Richard Nixon were to win the White House.
    They had a platform; they saw an opportunity; and they did what little they could do to express their solidarity with their own people back home. It should not have caused the uproar it did.
    At any rate, four years later, the murder of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the Olympics certainly put things in perspective. Compared to that tragedy, two men raising their fists in the air seemed very harmless, indeed.
    The Olympics would certainly be “non-political” in a perfect world. But that’s not the world we live in, is it? Let’s hope we can get through this one without tragedy.

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Rick Howell, a Bedford native, can be reached by e-mail at RickDem117@gmail.com.