Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Are black armbands too political for Olympics?

By Amy Bass
updated 9:01 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amy Bass: IOC mulled letting Ukraine athletes wear black armbands
  • IOC said politics not allowed at Olympics, but Bass says history shows otherwise
  • She says Olympics inherently political and IOC has taken contradictory stands many times
  • Bass: Yes, Olympic truce is central to Games, but it doesn't mean politics have no place

Editor's note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, has written widely on the cultural history of sports, including the book "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." She is a veteran of eight Olympics as the supervisor of NBC's Research Room, for which she won an Emmy in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1.

(CNN) -- As the Russian hockey team imploded, Kiev exploded.

Protests against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's administration had turned deadly, and Ukrainian athletes at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, wanted to wear black armbands to commemorate the dead. Initial reports indicated the International Olympic Committee declined the request.

Later, when a few Ukrainian athletes indicated they were leaving Sochi in solidarity with the protesters, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters the decision against the armbands had been mutual, and the Ukrainians instead opted to observe a moment of silence in the Olympic Village: "They weren't forbidden to wear armbands. ... They discussed what should be done, and they reached the conclusion there were other ways of marking this moment."

Amy Bass
Amy Bass

The muddled situation is par for the course when it comes to politics and the Olympics, where the positions of the Olympic committee are often contradictory. Already in Sochi, the IOC told skiers they could not wear helmet stickers honoring the late Canadian halfpipe skier Sarah Burke, and Norway could not wear black armbands to memorialize an athlete's brother who had trained with the team. To support such decisions, the IOC trots out Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted."

And in 2012, the IOC denied the Israeli delegation's request for a moment of silence in the opening ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the massacre in Munich, substituting instead a private ceremony -- but it had allowed a tribute in the ceremony to the victims of the London bombing attacks in 2005. And at the last Winter Games in Vancouver, the Georgian delegation was allowed to wear black armbands in the opening ceremony to honor luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, who had died that day in a training run.

Despite the IOC's nagging insistence it is apolitical, the Olympics have been fraught with politics since their inception. Avery Brundage, the only American ever to head the IOC, opposed a U.S. boycott of the Berlin Olympics in 1936 because "the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians." But as the entry to competition is based on national identity, the Olympics are inherently political.

Truce ends, death toll rises in Ukraine
McCain: Sanctions needed against Ukraine
Protesters: 100 dead in Ukraine

The Cold War magnified their political potential, providing a battlefield for the superpower struggle between communism and democracy to take place over medals, such as the controversial basketball final in Munich in 1972 in which the Soviets were given no less than three chances to make the game-winning basket over the United States, and the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980 when the United States defeated the Soviet Union in hockey.

Sochi was ripe with politics in the months leading up to the Olympics, with controversies regarding the environment, corrupt budgets and stray dogs. Political oppression stood front and center, particularly in the imprisonment of members the women's punk band Pussy Riot and the anti-gay legislation that had made Russia a dangerous place for many. Some called for a boycott of these Olympics, while others agreed that it would be for the athletes to take a stand once there.

With the Ukrainian situation, Sochi has become even more political, but not for the reasons anticipated. While transgender Italian activist Vladimir Luxuria has been detained in Olympic Park for her flags and rainbow attire, the athletes have mostly kept quiet. Early on, pictures of Alexey Sobolev's snowboard, adorned with the likeness of Pussy Riot, gave Bob Costas something political to talk about, while ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, the first "out" athlete to win a medal in Sochi, expressed her disapproval of Russia's anti-gay laws. This past week, snowboarder Michael Lambert also chimed in, deeming Russia a problematic host because it "has people suffer, shuts people up." He speculated that perhaps only Scandinavia had the potential for a "perfect" Games.

Above all, through the scandals, conflicts and corruption, the IOC sees itself as a peacemaker. But there are inconsistencies. In 1968, it pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to take action against sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos after the duo raised black gloved fists during the victory ceremony of the men's 200-meter race to protest racial oppression. Four years later in Munich, the IOC did not wait for the U.S. Olympic Committee to take action, banning U.S. sprinters Wayne Collett and Vince Matthews for their "disrespectful" behavior on the podium.

In Athens in 2004, the IOC failed to censure world champion Iranian judoka Arash Miresmaeili, who carried his country's flag in the Parade of Nations and then withdrew from competition after drawing an Israeli opponent. Yet it banned South Africa in its apartheid era and Afghanistan when the Taliban took power, pressured Saudi Arabia to field female athletes and has long recognized teams from Puerto Rico and East Timor and Palestinian territories as independent national delegations.

In Sochi, IOC President Thomas Bach urged the Ukrainians to demonstrate how "sport can build bridges and help to bring people from different backgrounds together in peace." IOC member Sergey Bubka, the great pole vaulter who represented both the Soviet Union and his native Ukraine in competition, echoed Bach's sentiments on Twitter, urging his compatriots to remember the Olympic truce and lay down their weapons. Canada's Globe and Mail agreed, running the headline, "Shadow cast over Sochi as Ukraine violence shatters Olympic truce."

What is confounding is the impression that until the most recent outbreak of violence in Ukraine, the Olympic truce was intact in these Games. The ancient Greeks invested in the Olympics as a diplomatic tool, as the spirit of ekecheiria stipulated laying down arms for athletic competition; they used sport to interrupt the progression of war. With the relatively recent creation of the Olympic Truce Centre, the IOC says it wants "to encourage searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world."

Black armbands do not seem to fit within the IOC's definition of peaceful and diplomatic. And perhaps they will become unnecessary if the continuing violence can finally be quelled.

But that does not mean we are left with sports without politics.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amy Bass.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT