Historically, the Olympics have been a hotbed of diplomatic hostilities. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would be boycotting the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Four years later, the Soviets announced their retaliation-boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, on the allegation that the U.S. government would not sufficiently protect U.S.S.R. athletes and may even actively harm them. Both boycotts involved convoluted diplomatic maneuvering, and neither the U.S. nor the USSR acted alone: in 1980 America rallied Canada, Japan, China, and West Germany, all of which refused to send athletes to Moscow; in ’84 the USSR kept Bulgaria, Mongolia, Vietnam, and East Germany from participating in the games. And these are just recent cases; examples abound from all points in Olympic history and from countries around the globe. In 1964 South Africa was banned from taking part in the Tokyo Olympics as a result of the apartheid regime. I hardly need to revisit the 1972 Munich games.
Yes, the Olympics are an ideal setting for political showmanship. The whole world is watching and everyone’s got their country’s flag plastered right on their chests. It’s an immensely public and symbolic stage. So far, the most politically noteworthy incident at the 2012 games has been the participation of Wojdan Shaherkani, the 16-year-old judo contender and first woman ever sent from Saudi Arabia. Shaherkani’s participation in the games has been hailed by news outlets and the Olympic committee alike as groundbreaking: a step forward for global sexual equality; the first time in Olympic history that every competing country has sent female athletes. But tempting though it is to pat ourselves on the back and pontificate about progress, the realities of Shaherkani’s participation in the games are really more alarming than uplifting.
The disheartening facts are as follows: Shaherkani lost her match in 82 seconds. She had never before competed in public and has been taught judo in the privacy of her home by her father. Ms. Shaherkani is only a blue-belt in judo and the fact that she was competing at all against Olympic black-belts has been contested and questioned in the media; the international judo federation almost prevented Shaherkani from participating due to safety concerns about wearing a hijab while competing. Many clerics in Saudi Arabia are referring to Wojdan as the “Olympic whore” for her choice to participate in the games. After the opening ceremony Wojdan left the stadium for the remainder of her stay to train at a private, undisclosed location, so as to insure she would not mix with men during her time in London. Wojdan confessed in a private post-match interview that the big crowds in the stadium scared her.
Despite all of these disconcerting realities, the New York Times reports that, “Olympic officials praised the match as progress.” What’s really interesting is that Olympic officials and members of the press are eager to claim this match in the name of progress when the international community seems largely to have given up on the idea that the Olympics has anything at all to do with politics. No countries have boycotted the 2012 games, nor have any countries been banned from participating. This means that the civil war in Syria, the mounting global tensions caused by Iran’s nuclear programs, and the recent revolution in Egypt have not prevented these countries from sending 10, 53, and 113 athletes to the games, respectively. The global recession and subsequent rioting that has ensued in Britain for the last two years have not prevented the UK from hosting the Olympics. At the last summer games, held in Beijing, the U.S. made the very deliberate and public decision not to boycott the games, despite the fact that 106 American lawmakers called for a boycott to protest China’s support of the despotic Sudanese government and the fact that 1.5 million Beijing residents would be forcibly relocated to make room for the stadium and game operations.
At this point, the delusion that what happens at the Olympics has any political relevance whatsoever is dwindling. Countries around the world have given up on boycotting the games, and the Olympic committee seems to have given up on banning nations from participating, despite the fact that there is much to protest and many countries worth banning. And yet, even after the games have become drastically less politicized in recent years, the press and Olympic committee still want to claim a victory for gender equality in the name of Shaherkani’s 82 seconds of Olympic play, an event clearly devoid of any real political value or efficacy. Unfortunately, it seems that Ms. Shaherkani’s participation in the games will mean practically nothing in the ongoing and uphill battle for gender equality in Saudi Arabia. The Olympic committee and international media touting it as progress is little more than a self-congratulatory, empty gesture that helps hide the fact that the Olympics is now utterly distinct from politics or progress of any kind.