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A Tortoise File

Boycott! The lost Olympics

What’s the lesson of the most notorious Olympic boycott in modern times?

Boycott! The lost Olympics

First published
Monday 26 July 2021

Last updated
Sunday 25 July 2021

Why this story?

It’s not difficult to translate this political choice into a personal one. We can all decide whether the enduring image we’d like from the Berlin 1936 Olympics is the one we’ve got – the Black American athlete Jesse Owens, triumphant and defiant with his four gold medals – or the Leni Riefenstahl propaganda film instead. But what’s striking is how unresolved the debate about sport and politics remains the best part of a century later. China’s persecution of its Uighur minority has put it back on the agenda before the Winter Olympics in Bejing next year. Human rights groups are lobbying for some kind of boycott. But here’s a sobering thought: only two cities wanted those games – Beijing and Almaty in Kazakhstan, which has its own, dramatic human rights problems. If we really privileged human rights, would we be holding a winter Olympics at all? Ceri Thomas, Editor