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Hitler, Water Polo, and Black Power: A History of Politics at the Olympics

Whether or not Mitt Romney’s multiple gaffes in London end up hurting his presidential campaign, they’re a good opportunity to remember that political skirmishes have always been part of the world’s premier international sporting event. Which should come as no surprise: Given that the athletics are themselves considered displays of national prowess, it’s only natural that they become proxies for grander geopolitical struggles.

But which events would compete for the gold (so to speak) for most outlandish Olympics political conflict ever? I spoke with Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, to compile a list of the best and strangest blowouts in the history of the Games.

Berlin, 1936:

National pride and grandeur have always been close to the heart of games. According to Wallechinsky, in the early days of the Games’ revival, members of royal families would insert themselves into key moments, waiting by finish lines to share in the glory of their athletes. But it never felt quite so sinister as at the Berlin Games, where Hitler hoped to showcase the superiority of the Aryan race. Germany only allowed one Jewish athlete, the fencer Helene Mayer, to compete on the German team. That racially segregated team ultimately won more medals than any other country—though Jesse Owens’s breakout performance derailed Hitler’s moment in the sun.

London, 1948:

Marie Provaznikova, the head of the Czech women’s contingent, became the first political refugee to use the Games as a means of escape. She had secured leave from Prague to go the U.S. for a year, but told a reporter for The Guardian, “I am a political refugee and proud of it…. There is no freedom in Czechoslovakia now.”

Melbourne, 1956:

In October of 1956, 200,000 Soviet troops poured into Hungary to quash the uprising against the Soviet-backed government in a struggle that left 5,000 Hungarians dead. But the Hungarian water polo team only learned the details of the conflict after they landed in Melbourne. When the Hungarian and Soviet teams faced off, the tension was at a fever pitch, with a history of locker room brawls between the teams and bitter jeering from fans in the crowd.The fervor reached its zenith with Hungary in the lead, when the Hungarian star Ervin Zador was flagrantly sucker-punched by a Soviet player, leaving a gash above his right eye that required eight stitches. The crowd poured out of the stands in a fury, leading the officials to call the match for Hungary. At the end of the games, 50 of the 100 Hungarian players had defected.

The games also saw the first nation-wide boycotts in Olympic history, with the Netherlands pulling out in protest of the Soviet action in Hungary. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq also dropped out because of the Suez Crisis.

Mexico City, 1968:

In the U.S., we mostly remember the Mexico City Games for the famous image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium with heads bowed and fists raised in a black power salute. But ten days before the Games began, a burgeoning student movement came to blows with the government forces in Tlatelolco Plaza, in a clash that left hundreds dead. Protests had begun with a street fight that ended with a clash with the city’s riot police, and the death of a few students when the military was called in. The deaths became a rallying cry against police violence, and the contest reached its pitch in the crackdown just over a week before the opening ceremonies.

Munich, 1972:


The Munich games will likely go down as the most memorable incident of politics baring its fangs in what is meant to be a celebration of the world’s ability to play nicely at least once every few years. The kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by the Palestinian group Black September, as they demanded the release of 234 Palestinian prisoners, and the two founding members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, was a rare moment when political violence made an appearance at the Games. Munich remains the only instance of an Olympic athlete being murdered during the competition.

The specter of that massacre has been haunting the London Games this year, which fall on Munich’s fortieth anniversary. There has been a growing movement that has been asking that the IOC observe a moment of silence (one of 24,480 minutes that the games will run, as Deborah E. Lipstadt pointed out in Tablet), but thus far the committee has balked for fear of sparking a walkout by some Arab countries.

Denver, 1976 (canceled):

In an act of fiscally minded defiance that would do today’s Tea Partiers proud, in 1972 the people of Colorado refused to spend tax dollars on the Games, despite having won the bid to host the 1976 competition. While the news had arrived with brass and fanfare, worries about cost and environmental impact fomented into a grassroots rejection, lead by a young lawmaker named Dick Lamm. When the votes were counted, Coloradans rejected the Olympics 514,228 to 350,964, a 59.4 percent majority, and sent them limping off to Innsbruck, Austria, which was more than happy to have them.

London, 2012:

The trend continues into the present day. On Wednesday the Iranian judo champion Javad Mahjoub bowed out in feigned illness, to continue Iran’s policy of not competing against Israeli athletes. Mitt Romney having managed to offend Londoners with his worry over “disconcerting” signs of unpreparedness, has brought the double threat of presidential and international politicking to the stage. It’s safe to say that there will be more to come before the London games are done. After all, it would hardly be the Olympics without a good political scandal or two.