As he crossed the finish line of the Olympic Marathon in 2016, Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his hands above his head in an X, as if his wrists were shackled together. Though he won the silver medal against the world’s best distance runners that humid morning in Rio de Janeiro, he was not celebrating.
Asked what his gesture meant after the race, he said he was showing solidarity with his ethnic group, the Oromos, whose protests for equal access to political and economic power were met by a brutal campaign of suppression by the government.
It was not an empty gesture. He feared for his life for his international protest, so he left the Ethiopian section of the Olympic Village and soon sought asylum in the United States. Two years later, after more protests, the Ethiopian prime minister resigned, and an election brought Ahmed Abiy, himself from Oromia, to power. Abiy freed prisoners, allowed dissidents to return home, and unblocked thousands of TV channels and websites. After living in Arizona, Lilesa returned home, an Olympic hero in a nation with a long history of celebrating its distance runners.
For the first time outside World War I and World War II, an Olympic Games are not going forward as scheduled. And, with its postponement, fans and athletes will lose a venue to consider global developments, international politics, and the debates that animate our world.
The modern Games have always been a contradiction. Often conceived as an apolitical sphere in which global and national political developments aren’t welcomed, international politics has consistently infiltrated and affected the Games.
Berlin hosted the 1936 Games under the Nazi government, and the US seriously considered a boycott. By that time the Nuremberg laws, passed in 1935, had stripped Jews of their citizenship and enshrined anti-Semitism in law. The Dachau concentration camp itself opened in 1933. These known abuses, however, did not ultimately lead to the US’s absence, and American athletes, particularly African-Americans, won several medals that directly contradicted the Nazis’ core beliefs. Jesse Owens became an international icon by dominating his competition, winning gold medals in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump, and 4×100 meter relay.
Boycotts later became more common. In 1976, more than twenty African countries did not participate in the Montreal Games to protest New Zealand’s decision to send their rugby team to play in South Africa, which lent legitimacy to the apartheid regime. In 1980, the US boycotted the Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. And the USSR, in 1984, boycotted the Los Angeles Games in retaliation.
It is an open question how these kinds of symbolic protests affect the course of history. Many analysts thought that the 2008 Olympics in Beijing would lead to more liberal treatment of Chinese people by the Chinese Communist Party, but the opposite has happened. Crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang have been brutal, amounting to cultural genocide, and the Chinese government continues to silence or disappear dissidents who speak out against the Communist Party’s abuses or negligence. Writing in Foreign Policy, Nithin Coca argues that the 2008 Olympics actually paved the way for the concentration camps in Xinjiang because Beijing learned that they can behave viciously against their own people and get away with it.
Yet symbolic protests do stick with us and inspire many. In 1968, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who came in first and third in the 200 meters, raised their fists while the national anthem played during the awards ceremony in a gesture of black pride and to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the US. Though they were harshly criticized, the image has become iconic for athletes and supporters of civil rights.
US lawmakers understand the symbolic importance of the Olympic Games. Senator Todd Young, who gave the inaugural Richard G. Lugar lecture this year during the Hamilton Lugar School’s conference on America’s Role in the World®, sponsored a bipartisan resolution requesting that the International Olympic Committee move the Olympics from China in 2022 due to their human rights abuses. Many other lawmakers have signed on in support.
Amidst a global pandemic, the losses are myriad, and the postponement of the Olympics is a real loss. The Olympics have never been perfect—corruption, cheating, an overemphasis on corporate participation, and negatively affected host countries come to mind—but they are a time to engage seriously with the idea that international understanding is essential to the improvement of the world. The spirit of the Games—global cooperation and a celebration of the best of humanity—is absent precisely at an historical moment when we need those things the most due to the effects of COVID-19.
International engagement, of course, will continue without the Olympics this year. Opportunities to work, learn, and teach are going online, and protests and acts of civic engagement aren’t stopping. Elections are continuing. There is not a concentrated global viewership of a sporting event, but there are still ways to spread awareness about the issues that matter most to you and learn what you can so that you can make a difference. That is, after all, a guiding principle of the Hamilton Lugar School: if you want to make a difference in the world, you have to understand it first.