Officially speaking, politics and the Olympics are to be kept strictly separate. The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) official charter expressly forbids “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at any Olympic event or site.
But that hasn’t stopped them. From the tragic to the memorable, some of the most significant political statements the world has seen have played out in front of billions on the Olympic stage.
The black power salute
Mexico City 1968: It is, perhaps, the most well-known image from an Olympic medal ceremony. US sprinters Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, wearing gold and bronze medals respectively, raise gloved fists and bow their head as the US national anthem is played. It was a protest against segregation and racism in their home country. The third man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, is often forgotten from this powerful gesture.
While he didn’t join Carlos and Smith in the salute, Norman wore the ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ badge, to show that he supported their cause. Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace but arrived to a hero’s welcome. Norman was shunned on his return to Australia. He remained close friends with Carlos and Smith until his death.
The Nazi salute
Berlin 1936: Hitler intended to use the Olympics to showcase his theory of racial superiority but the plan backfired. His Aryan athletes were overshadowed by the performance of African-American athlete Jesse Owens. Owens took out four gold medals on the track and pictures of him standing defiantly above German athletes giving the Nazi salute remains a powerful image.
The Aboriginal flag
Sydney 2000: Cathy Freeman carried both the Aboriginal flag and the Australian flag after winning the 400m track event. It was a potent symbol of reconciliation as Australia was still coming to terms with the legacy of its own segregation policies which included forced adoption.
Reconciliation was also highlighted by the rock band Midnight Oil who wore suits bearing the word “Sorry” during the opening ceremony.
Munich 1972: Politics intruded on the games in a violent and horrific way. Eight Palestinian men kidnapped Israeli athletes in an act that resulted in the deaths of 11 Israelis, five Palestinian gunmen and a police officer. The attackers had demanded the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners but negotiations broke down. For the first time ever the games were suspended. They resumed after a 36-hour break but many athletes opted to take no further part.
Montreal 1976: 28 African nations boycotted the games when New Zealand was allowed to compete after its rugby team toured racially segregated South Africa earlier that year.
Moscow 1980: More than 60 nations boycotted the games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Australian athletes went but competed under the Olympic flag, not the Australian flag.
Los Angeles 1984: The USSR led a boycott by 14 socialist nations. It was believed to have been a retaliation to the boycott of the Moscow games four years earlier.
The Refugee Olympic team
Rio 2016: The IOC has made a statement of its own allowing a team of international refugees to compete under the Olympic banner. The IOC said it wanted the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) to “bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis”.
A Brazilian judge has also ruled against the ejection of peaceful protesters from Olympic events. People were being thrown out of Olympic sites for wearing T-shirts or carrying signs, criticising Brazil’s interim president. The country is embroiled in its own political crisis.