Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany. What history records from his triumph is a blow to Adolph Hitler’s belief in “White” supremacy. Owens’s accomplishments against the political backdrop of Hitler’s Germany and America’s Jim Crow were recently captured in the film “Race.” In 1968 athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos became indelibly etched in sports history when raised black-gloved clinched fists during the medal ceremony in Mexico City, Mexico. Their “Black” Power salute during the playing of the national anthem was rich in political symbolism. One cannot say with certainty, but perhaps their stand inspired Jimi Hendrix to play the national anthem at Woodstock a year later. Such monumental displays of political symbolism makes the earthquake over gymnast Gabby Douglas not placing her hand over her heart during the medal ceremony in Rio de Janeiro pale in comparison. Her stance was just a pose. Not all American athletes place their hand over their heart for the playing of the U.S. national anthem. The last time I look, I recall that we are simply required to stand. The placing of the hand over the heart is reserved for the Pledge of Allegiance. Nevertheless, in 1972 eleven Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists in an attack on the Olympic Village in Munich, Germany. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to a U.S. boycott of 1980 Summer Olympics which were held in Moscow. I vivid recall President Carter saying, “Our athletes will not go!”
Sports in general are an international undertaking. The National Football League (NFL) has contracted for several regular season games to be played in London, England. The Buffalo Bills had a brief contract to at least one home game in Toronto, Ontario Canada. The contract was suspended with the team’s new ownership. Many American basketball players play for professional teams in other countries. Soccer (internationally known as football) has long been the most attended sport on the international scene. The United States has finally begun to incorporated “soccer” into its pantheon of national professional sports. As stated above, sports in general is an international undertaking. The Olympics both summer and winter is on par with the United Nations, the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Catholic Church. Aside from the occasional intersectionality of global politics with the games, the Olympics is about international competition among some of the world’s premiere athletes. Most, if not nearly all the athletes simply want to compete. Major cities around the world compete to host the Olympics every four years. The Olympics gives the host city and country to the opportunity to showcase themselves to the world. Such a stage can generate tourism, trade, and investment. This was no less the thinking behind the Rio Olympics in Brazil. This was why the alleged robbery of the American swimmers caused the Brazilian authorities a great deal of consternation. Japan is scheduled to host the summer Olympics in 2020. The host city for the 2024 Olympics will not be announced until September 2017 in Lima, Peru.
The Rio Olympics was particularly awash in international flavor. For the first time, nation less athletes were allowed to compete under the Olympic Flag. The Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was the first time the Olympics were held in a South American country. Interestingly enough Portuguese is spoken in Brazil while all the surrounding countries speak Spanish. I am reminded that it is said that the Portuguese colony of Angola gave birth to Brazil. No doubt that first time visitors to Brazil were introduced to many aspects of African culture. The Rio Olympics also seemed to highlight the African Diaspora. This was particularly true in track and field along with gymnastics. Such realities should inform the casual observer that there is a vast world outside the boundaries of ones’ self. This is not to say that the Olympics is immune from problems. For example, many athletes decided to not to attend the Olympics in Rio due to the Zika virus. Many news reports gave voice to critiques who pointed out the extreme poverty that persists in Brazil. There were also numerous reports on the polluted waters that can go unnoticed by due to the distant scenic beauty of Rio de Janeiro’s pristine beaches. Perhaps the Olympic spotlight can bring more attention and effort to address such dire realities that plagued the host city and nation.
Irrespective of all the issues associated with the Olympics, I believe that the Olympics has a powerful connotation of peace. One need not look any further than both the Opening and Closing ceremonies of the Olympics. The parade of athletes representing their various countries is astounding. Each nation is very different from all the other nations. Yet, this difference that does not inherently pronounce domination or subjugation. Although various nations had different numbers of athletes, the nation that sent only one athlete was deemed equal in importance as the nation that sent five hundred athletes. Moreover, the athletes competed. They basked in victory and accepted defeat. Neither outcome was an invitation to war.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”
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