Amber Hildebrandt - Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 10:55 ET

Using Olympics opening ceremony to rebuke the Games a new phenomenon

How Beijing and Barcelona marked turn in public attention

IOC president
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, sitting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, criticized world leaders of using the Sochi Olympics as a political platform "on the backs of the athletes." (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

The head of the International Olympic Committee this week railed against politicians who will snub the Games to serve their own agendas, but experts say the expectation that politicians attend is a “new phenomenon.”

“History shows us that political leaders don’t normally show up,” said David Wallechinsky, a noted Olympics historian.

Much hay has been made about which politicians will and won’t attend the Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony due to human rights concerns, especially since Russia instituted a new law banning gay propaganda.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and many European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, won’t be attending the official start of the games on Friday.

Among the world leaders planning to be in the stands are China’s President Xi Jinping, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

Obama not only stated publicly he won’t be attending, he named a delegation with two openly gay athletes.

Bruce Kidd, a past Canadian Olympian and University of Toronto professor who studies the political side of the Games, calls Obama’s move a “half-rebuke,” but sending the athletes “really poked Putin in the eye.”

Beijing marked change

It’s that move – and similar actions by European leaders – that IOC President Thomas Bach was likely referring to in his speech Tuesday, though he refused to name names.

Bach said world leaders were using the Sochi Olympics as a political platform “on the backs of the athletes” and snubbing the Games without even being invited. The Olympics shouldn’t be “used as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests," he added.

But both Kidd and Wallechinsky agree: the avid watching and reporting of world leader no-shows is a recent development.

“It’s only in 2008, when the Chinese government tried to bully everybody into coming through economic threats or economic rewards, that it was made into a big deal,” said Wallechinsky.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics also marked the first time in history when a U.S. president attended the Games on foreign soil. Then U.S. president George W. Bush chafed at calls to boycott the Beijing opening ceremony in protest of crackdowns in Tibet.

“He chose to do so in a country run by a dictatorship, which was very upsetting for some of us,” said Wallechinsky, author of a series of reference tomes on the Olympics.

Bush told reporters at the time he frequently spoke with the Chinese government about human rights issues. “I don't need the Olympics to express my position,” he said.

An avid sports fan, Bush characterized his attendance as a family event. He was one of 80 heads of state watching in Beijing.

Among those not in the crowd was Harper. The Canadian government said it wasn’t a snub. He’d also missed the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino.

“Harper was in Vancouver. We hosted those Olympics but he’s not really taken a big interest in Olympic sport other than in hockey,” noted Kidd.

Diplomacy at the Games

Little appears about politicians’ attendance in the annals of previous Games, except from Barcelona’s 1992 Summer Olympics, but it marked a historic moment: the return of South African athletes to the Games after a 32-year ban due to apartheid.

The late Nelson Mandela, leader of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, led his country’s delegation out during the opening ceremony and declared that “sport has the power to change the world.”

In his speech, the revered leader also noted that the Games, while intended to be free of politics, have an underlying political dynamic. ”Sport plays an important role in creating a favourable climate for negotiations,” he said.

Mandela understood the potential of the Games to unite, without the typical political pressures at play.

“The week before the Olympics have always been a week of this kind of diplomacy, overt and covert, most of it covert,” said Kidd. “And that’s been the way over the past 120 years and in the ancient world for 1,000 years.”

And if used wisely, that politically neutral atmosphere, notes Kidd, can lead to incredible stories of the Olympics quietly bringing people together.

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