Human Rights, Boycotts, and the Olympics


Location: 1030 Jenkins Nanovic Halls


John Soares
Department of History
University of Notre Dame

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The Olympics are a sports “mega-event” that many actors – governments, organizers, spectators, media and occasionally even athletes – view as having moral and political importance because of their size and the international attention they generate. But hopes that the Games will promote moral uplift and human rights often go unfulfilled. Brutal dictatorships treat their opportunity to host the Olympics as an international endorsement of their policies, while democracies often violate their own proclaimed ideals as they try to pretty up and put on a good show for the world.

On several occasions in the 20th century, unhappiness with particular regimes led to a boycott or a threatened boycott, which caused their own difficulties and produced very mixed results. Soares will consider controversies surrounding such Olympics as Berlin (1936), Mexico City (1968), Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984) and Seoul (1988) to provide some historic context for discussing the connection between politics, human rights issues and the Olympics that gave rise to President Biden’s “diplomatic boycott” of next month’s Beijing Games.