The Olympics: Diplomacy & Politics


The Olympic Games, born of diplomatic and political design, have always played an important role in international politics. The Olympics provide a stage for both international cooperation and peaceful competition, as well as international conflict and confrontation. Join Active Minds as we explore the rich history of the Olympic Games and how the games have been involved in a variety of international political issues.

Key Lecture Points

  • The 2016 Summer Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro August 5-21.    Athletes from 206 countries will compete in 306 medal events from aquatics to wrestling.   Golf and rugby are returning to the games after many years of absence. 
  • As Brazil prepares for the 2016 Games, the country struggles with a recession, a corruption scandal that has rocked the government, impeachment charges against President Rousseff and a massive outbreak of the Zika virus that has been designated by the World Health Organization as a public health emergency of international concern.
  • Historically, countries whose relations have been tense, or even conflict-ridden, have come to the Olympic Games and peacefully competed with one another.  That the United States and the Soviet Union both attended the Olympics throughout the duration of the Cold War (with notable exceptions), and competed peacefully with one another, is testament to this point.
  • On the other hand, the Olympic Games have also at times provided a forum for international conflict, with the prestige of the Games often utilized to draw attention to contentious global or national issues and/or to isolate countries seen to be “objectionable” for some reason.  The US boycott, along with 64 other nations, of the 1980 Games in Moscow, the banning of the South African delegation from the 1964 Games in Tokyo, and the killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich are good examples of this trend.
  • Olympic Games have become huge events, requiring extensive infrastructure and lavish ceremonies.   The 2014 Winter Olympics were the most expensive in history—more than twice the cost of the 2012 London Games.

Exploration Questions

  • To what extent are the Olympics limited in their ability to foster global peace and understanding?  Why?
  • In what ways were the ancient Greek Olympics similar and different from their modern successor?
  • What are the major issues around the 2016 Rio  Olympics?

Reflective Questions

  • Did you support President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games?
  • Did you support the decision to reject the Olympics in Denver?  Do you think Denver should bid again?
  • What are some of your favorite Summer Olympic competitions?
  • Who are some of your favorite Olympic athletes?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. (paperback) Mariner Books, 2008. 272 pages. Based on interviews with the Owen’s family and extensive archival research, Schaaps tells the remarkable story of Owens at the 1936 Berlin Games and his refutation of Hitler.
    Click here to order
  • Wilson, Neil. The Treasures of the Olympic Games: An Official Olympic Museum Publication. Carlton Publishing Group, 2008 . Fully authorized and produced in partnership with the official Olympic Museum, this unique treasure trove includes more than 200 photographs and 25 removable facsimiles of rare Olympic memorabilia.
    Click here to order
  • Klein, Aaron J. Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response.  Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. 288 pages.  The author tells the story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli counterterrorism operation it spawned.
    Click here to order