Politics at the Olympics: Out of bounds?

At the Mexico City Summer Olympics in 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meters) wore beads in honor of lynching victims, and as the national anthem played, hung their heads and raised their fists in a salute Carlos says was not anti-American, but pro-black. AP Photo

Aren't politicking and activism at the Olympics supposed to be out of bounds? Despite what the rules say, the reality is frequently quite different. Our Cover Story is reported now by Tracy Smith:

At 50, Brian Boitano hardly seems to have lost his edge. Twenty-six years after winning the figure skating gold medal at the 1988 Olympics, he has a new role at the 2014 Winter Games, as one of three openly gay athletes named to a nine-person official delegation representing the U.S. at the Sochi Olympics. 

"I didn't realize that President Obama was sending such an immense message through this delegation," he said.

"And you, at that moment, were not openly gay?" said Smith.

"No, I was not, at that moment, openly gay. And I had no plans to," Boitano said. "Not because I was ashamed or anything, but because I realize I have a public side of my life, but I also have a personal side of my life."

But he was told years ago that appearances count and successful athletes need to maintain a certain image.

"After the Olympics, I had an agent who said, 'I don't know if you're gay or not, but you need to go on TV and say that you're not gay, because I'm trying to get you projects and endorsements,'" Boitano said.

Still, he decided that if ever there was a time to make a statement, this would be it.

So what, to him, is the message?  "Everybody is different. And just because, you know, we're gay, does not mean that we can't be successful and we can't be proud, we can't be strong. We're all of those things -- and we are Americans."

It seems that whenever the world's athletes gather, politics goes along for the ride -- and in Sochi it's been especially rough.

First, the games are being held under threat of attack by Islamic militants, including the group that pulled off an attack in Volgograd last year; and relations between the U.S. and Russia are strained at best.

And then there's this: last year, the Russians passed a law banning what they call "gay propaganda": basically, they've made it illegal to express any gay rights sentiment in public.

That prompted President Obama to round out the U.S. delegation with gay athletes. Besides Boitano, there's tennis great Billie Jean King and hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow.

It comes down to a clash of cultures, according to NYU Russian Studies professor Stephen Cohen.

"You're dealing with a different civilization, to a certain extent," Cohen said, "'cause it's half in Europe, half in Asia, a country where 19th century traditions are very, very strong, where the Orthodox Church is very, very strong, and change comes in these societies from within.

"The problem is, politics has intruded more so than any Olympics I can remember."

Truth is, politics has always been part of the Olympics. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And then there was the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., when a hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviet teams became a Cold War showdown.

Mike Eruzione was 25 then, and captain of the team the whole country was watching.

"There was a telegram from a lady in Texas," he told Smith, "and all the telegram said was, 'Beat those commie bastards.'  And it had nothing to do with the hockey game. But that was the mindset of people who weren't hockey fans. And I think that's what kind of made the moment so special for so many people."

And "special" doesn't even begin to describe it:

The U.S. team defeated the Soviets with a score of 4-3. The victory, known then and forever as the "Miracle on Ice," triggered an outburst of national pride. 

"So everybody had had a different meaning," said Eruzione. "For us as a hockey team, we won. But for a nation, we won."

1980-winter-olympics-hockey-medal-ceremony.jpg
Hockey teams from the United States, U.S.S.R. and Sweden receive their Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Feb. 24, 1980.
AP Photo

But Eruzione says making a political statement was the last thing on his mind.

"For us, it was a hockey game. I'd like to tell you it was this clearly political moment, but it was never talked about in the locker room. It was never talked about before the game. It was never talked about after the game from a team standpoint. We had great respect for the Soviet players."

Smith asked, "If a kid who's going to the Olympics came up to you and said, 'Should I use this moment to make a political statement?' what would you tell him or her?"

"How strong is it to you? How important is it to you?" Eruzione replied. "Because there [is] going to be some ridicule that you're going to have to face [from] a lot of people. And if you're strong enough to do that, then do it. But I would prefer it not to have it happen. 'Cause it's just going to open up a can of worms for that athlete in whatever situation it is."

And most people agree: according to a new CBS News poll, 82 percent say political expression should not have a role at the Olympic Games.

CBS News Poll: Politics and the Olympics, February 2014 (pdf)

That includes Brian Boitano. Sure, he's in Sochi now to send a message, but at the 1988 Olympics, he kept his issues to himself -- on the ice, and on the medal stand.

"You really feel like everyone in America's watching," said Boitano. "You feel like you are America. It's, like, the weirdest feeling in a great way. It's, like, you just feel filled with pride and you just feel like, for that moment, you are America."

It was, of course, a very different America in 1968.

Dr. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Racial tension was at the boiling point.

When there was talk of political demonstrations at the '68 Summer Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage issued a warning: "I don't think any of these boys would be foolish enough to demonstrate at the Olympic Games. And I think if they do they will be promptly sent home."

That year in Mexico City, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 meters. 

On the medal stand, they went shoeless as a nod to poverty, wore beads in honor of lynching victims, and as the national anthem played, hung their heads and raised their fists in a salute John Carlos says was not anti-American, but pro-black.

"When we raised our fists, all the people who were loving me yesterday hated me today, merely because I exposed who I was as a black man," said Carlos.

"You could feel it at that moment?" Smith asked.

"At that very same moment."

"You could hear it from the crowd?"

"From the crowd. It wasn't like they were singing the national anthem; it got to the point that they were screaming it, like they were going to shove it down our throats."

Smith and Carlos were thrown off the team and out of the Olympic Village, and flew home to a country that for them would never be the same. At a press conference Carlos said, "There were so many white people telling me that I was a fool and I was standing up on that platform alone." 

Smith said, "There are a lot of athletes, prominent athletes, who believe that once you stand up there [on the medal podium], that is not the place to make a political statement."

"Well, maybe they do it in their bedroom. Maybe that's the time and the place," Carlos said. "You know, maybe they go out in Park Avenue, do it out there on Park Avenue. Well, when is the time and the place? To do it when no one can see you? No one can feel you and no one can hear you? No one can try and understand you? Where is the place to do it?

"That's the only place to do it, is where you're going to meet the masses," he said.

"Even if the masses boo you at first?"

"They love me now," Carlos replied.

Whatever the outcome of his presence in Sochi, Brian Boitano will come home to multiple project on and off the ice.

Mike Eruzione of the 1980 hockey team is a motivational speaker with a story no one seems to get tired of hearing.

"We could've lost. And you wouldn't be talking to me," Eruzione laughed. 

"Maybe I'd be talking to you for something else," Smith replied.

"Yeah, maybe I'd win the lottery tor something." 

John Carlos says his actions in Mexico City cost his dearly, and he struggled for years. Today if you visit San Jose State University, you'll see a statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- a tribute to a moment that was, to him, worth any price.

"Yes, I feel that I did the right thing, and God's giving me my rewards for doing it," Carlos told Smith. "Now, I'm not one of the richest guys in the nation, but then again, I don't think that they can buy what I have."

Which is?  "My persona. My swagger. My confidence. My faith. And my good looks!"

"You think your Wheaties box is still coming?" asked Smith.

"It might not come in my life and time, but I'd say for people who're just like me, eventually it will be there, where they will come to the realization that we have to start promoting equality and fair play in this society in which we live.

"That sells Wheaties, too."


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