The Games: Political Manipulation of Olympic Proportions

The Games: Political Manipulation of Olympic Proportions

When the Olympic Games begin in Beijing on Friday, it will be just about impossible to avoid getting caught up in the excitement. The world's collective eyes will become fixed on Beijing, or rather on television screens beaming images from China's meticulously organized games. Behind the human drama and dazzling athleticism, however, will continue to loom troubling truths about the Olympics: truths not just about these games, but about the entire exercise, the organization that runs it, and the way the spectacular event has been manipulated over decades for political purposes.

The Olympics long ago became the ideal platform for regimes to boast about their accomplishments. Patriotic pride easily morphs into troubling nationalistic fervor in the venues where individual athletes strain for greatness. From the Berlin Olympics of 1936 to the planned 2014 winter games in Sochi, Russia, the games have shown a power to bolster the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, and to help enlist the devoted support of the populations they rule.

Hitler knew what the Olympics could do to build support for his ideology, and he largely succeeded in that effort. Along the way he created many of the stirring traditions we associate with the games, including the Olympic torch run. The rewarding of the winter games to Russia helped boost Putin's standing at home, even as his government increasingly revealed its authoritarian tendencies by muzzling opposition media, taking over key enterprises and silencing other critics. Still, the IOC happily chose Russia for the 2014 winter games, despite the mysterious "suicides" of opposition journalists, the use of energy supplies for political purposes and other deeply unsettling developments in Putin's Russia.

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