The International Olympic Committee has as one of its central tenets the “endeavour to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace,” but that lofty ideal hasn’t prevented politics from butting its head in periodically at the modern Olympic Games. Throughout the Games’ century-long history, petty beefs have intersected with righteous causes in the form of Olympic boycotts. Below is a list of some of the most memorable country-wide protests.
At the London Games, Irish athletes were upset that they were being forced to compete as representatives of the United Kingdom. Fearing an Irish boycott, the originally-named UK team was split into Great Britain/Ireland. The Irish field hockey and polo teams split from that moniker and competed as a separate country regardless. They won silver in both events.
The aftermath of WWI perpetuated antagonisms both large and small. Because of their defeat during the war, Germany, Australia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey were not invited to Belgium.
In Russia, the devastation of the war helped spark a revolution and civil war, so the newly-formed Soviet government wasn’t invited either. It wouldn’t be the first time the Russians got left off the guest list or simply chose not to come.
After a relatively calm decade and a half post-WWI, the most notorious Olympics were held under the watchful eye of Adolf Hitler. While there were atrocities still to be committed by the Third Reich, there was controversy about whether the United States (and many others) should participate.
Major countries like the US, England, and France ultimately chose to participate. The enduring legacy of the games is Jesse Owens winning four gold medals—though that last gold medal came at the expense of his Jewish teammates Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, who were swapped out for Owens and Ralph Metcalfe at the last minute for the 4×100 meter relay. While 49 countries participated, civil war-racked Spain and the Soviet Union chose to sit Berlin out.
Israel, United Kingdom, and France invaded Egypt in an attempt to regain control of the Suez Canal. Thus, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon chose to boycott the Games.
The Soviet Union suppressed the Hungarian Revolution that same year, prompting a boycott by Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.
The People’s Republic of China boycotted the Games because the Republic of China (now Taiwan) was allowed to compete as its own country.
Mexico City, 1968
Perhaps the most interesting year of the Olympiad happened in 1968 when individual protests and boycotts took a center stage. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had their medals stripped for their Black Panther salute at the 200 meter medal ceremony; Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar), the best basketball player in America, refused to participate. South Africa, having been banned from the Olympics in 1960, was invited, but that invite was later rescinded when other African nations, black American athletes, and Eastern bloc countries threatened to boycott if South Africa was invited.
In 1976-1984, boycotts reached their high water mark. Twenty-eight countries, mostly from Africa, chose to boycott the Munich Games because of the inclusion of New Zealand, whose rugby team had toured South Africa earlier that year. The boycotteers viewed that tour as tacit support for South Africa’s apartheid government.
Flexing their geopolitical muscles, the United States led a boycott charge in protest of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Sixty-five countries boycotted the 1980 Olympics, including a separate group, led by revolutionary Iran, after an Islamic Conference meeting urged a boycott by Muslim-majority nations.
Los Angeles, 1984
Not to be outdone in a duel of Cold War gamesmanship, the Soviet Union led a boycott of 18 nations that refused to go to L.A. in 1984. Curiously, Afghanistan refused to participate despite the United States backing in 1980; Iran also boycotted, citing “U.S. interference in the Middle East” among other complaints. Communist Cuba also skipped L.A., leaving a great void in boxing and baseball.
After trying—and failing—to get the IOC to split the 1988 Olympics between North and South Korea, the North Koreans boycotted the 1988 Games along with their Cuban, Nicaraguan, Ethiopian, and Madagascan allies. Albania and the Seychelles didn’t show up, either—but they didn’t call their non-participation a boycott (so as to avoid sanctions from the IOC).
The last six Olympics have been spared of boycotts. The USSR’s dissolution mostly ended Cold War conflict, while the end of the apartheid government in South Africa meant they were allowed back into the Olympic fold.
Despite threats to ditch the Beijing 2008 Olympics over human rights violations and air pollution—as well as a fear of terrorism—the Games there went on. Despite a complaint by Iran that the logo in London 2012 looked like it spelled out the word Zion, the country decided to participate.