The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games have gone down in folklore due to the exploits of Jesse Owens, who touched hearts all over the world when he won four gold medals, shattering Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s myth of Aryan racial superiority.
Albert Speer, the Nazi minister of war during World War II, said Hitler “was highly annoyed” at the success of the “marvellous coloured American runner”. Hitler concluded black athletes’ “strong physiques” gave them an unfair advantage and called for them to be “excluded from future games”.
Despite the embarrassment caused by Owens, Hitler and the Nazis were far from unhappy with the Berlin Olympics overall. Not only did their athletes win far more medals than any other country, but the Nazis had also pulled off a huge public relations coup, casting their evil regime in a positive light.
Those 1936 Games are a blotch on the history of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The Nazi regime’s open discrimination against Jews and other “non-Aryans” was already public knowledge. But it did not result in the Games’ cancellation. Nor did it cause any high-profile political scandal.
The Owens case is a fine example of how sport and politics cannot be separated, however much people might wish.
The IOC doesn’t seem to understand this crucial point even now. In late January, it paved the way for athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutrals at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, suggesting a pathway for Russian and Belarusian athletes should be “further explored”. This catastrophic decision is an endorsement of the brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.
It is also a clear breach of the Olympic Charter itself.
Article 2 states one of its “fundamental principles” is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
The meaning of this noble phrase is clear to everyone except the IOC.
How are Russia’s atrocities compatible with “promoting a peaceful society” or the “preservation of human dignity”?
The United Nations confirmed in January that more than 7,000 Ukrainian civilians had been killed in the 11 months since Russia invaded. That number represents those that the UN has been able to corroborate, and it acknowledges the full civilian toll is much higher. Included, as of February 3, are 184 Ukrainian athletes.
At the turn of the year, Russian air strikes demolished the Altair ice rink in the town of Druzhkivka. Not only was this the home of professional ice hockey club HC Donbas, but it was also a pillar of the local community, playing host to more than 1,000 children from schools in Druzhkivka, Kostyantynivka, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in the Donetsk region.
The Altair ice rink was the fifth ice hockey stadium destroyed by Russian attacks, after the Druzhba venue in Donetsk, arenas in Mariupol and Melitopol, and the Ice Palace in Sievierodonetsk.
“The ice rink is not just a brick building,” wrote HC Donbas president Fyodor Ilyenko on his Facebook page. “It was, for all members of the club, like a second home. Hundreds of children’s competitions, dozens of international tournaments, children’s smiles. I have no words.”
Russia has turned to mass air strikes against the Ukrainian civilian infrastructure since suffering humiliating defeats on the battlefield.
The Dynamo football stadium in Kharkiv; Korotych airport, which used to hold international aviation competitions; the training base of the Metalist 1925 football club, which was built for the 2012 European Championship, when the national teams of Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Portugal played in Kharkiv — all have been destroyed or badly damaged by Russian forces.
On a trip to Ukraine in September 2021, IOC president Thomas Bach visited one of Kyiv’s parks. There were many teenagers who cheerfully greeted him and shook his hand. Today, these children have to hide in bomb shelters several times a day. They are forced to stay there for hours, never knowing what will await them on the surface, hoping that their home and school will survive another air raid.
These attacks have no military purpose. They are intended to wound and kill civilians. They are blatant war crimes.
When the political system of a state is unleashing military aggression and genocide against another nation, any athlete or sportsperson operating under the flag of the aggressor should be deemed an integral part of that political system.
The participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes as “neutrals” is almost irrelevant. Everyone knows already who they are and where they are from.
In 2014, everyone also knew who the Russian special forces were when they pretended to be residents of Donbas and Crimea during their illegal annexation.
Russia’s industrial-scale doping regime led their athletes to be barred from the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo (held in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Some competed as “neutrals” — yet Russian media referred to them as the “Russian team”, and Russian fans understood that. Terms like “Crimea is ours” and the “Olympics are ours” are virtually the same in the age of hybrid warfare.
Moreover, the vast majority of Russian athletes, including those who won prizes while competing under a neutral flag, are members of the Central Sports Club of the Army. To that end, they stand as representatives of the brutal Russian military machine.
For justice to work, both its letter and its spirit should be regarded. To pervert the essence of justice, it is enough to simply neglect the spirit, adhering to the letter. And that is exactly what the “neutral” status for the athletes from the aggressor states is about. Any country supporting the idea is also supporting an injustice.
We all know that a professional sports career does not last long. For athletes, the Olympic Games are the pinnacle. But, despite this, real values should always shine through — especially in sports.
Both action and inaction can be judged by people, and history. To be on the right side is quite simple: be honest with yourself, destroy fear, protest against the killings.
Outstanding athletes are often idols and role models. Therefore, their conscience should be exemplary for all to see. There are millions of different ways to tell the world the truth about the war in Ukraine.
Protect your dignity and respect the true Olympic values.