The flight to Poland of the Belarusian runner Kristsina Tsimanuskaia after her failed participation in the Tokyo Games has once again shown how the great global event of the sport is, since its inception in the modern age in Athens in 1896, a huge box of resonance of the tensions of the international politics of the moment, scene from the inexorable rise of Hitler to terrorist attacks through vetoes, protests and boycotts to countries of all kinds.
Tsimanuskaia is, for now, the latest in a long series of athletes who chose freedom and decided not to return to their countries of origin, although in his case fear seems to have outweighed political dissent. Before her, at the London 2012 Games more than a dozen African, Cameroonian, Congolese and Sudanese athletes applied for asylum in the middle of the night at British police stations and more recently, in Rio in 2016, the Team of Refugee Athletes under the Olympic flag made up of athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Tokyo there are 29, many of them Syrians, Iranians and Afghans. “It seems as if the Olympic Games, the most lucrative and political of all sporting events on the planet, are still being used for political action. It is clear that the situation of countries such as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine has come to light at this meeting ”, says in an email Jonathan Grix, professor of Sports Policy at the University of Manchester.
The Tsimanuskaia case brings to mind the great defections of the Cold War. The first athlete to flee from the Iron Curtain was the Czechoslovak gymnast Marie Provaznikova and she did so at the London games in August 1948. Months earlier, in January, there had been the Communist coup in Prague and the consequent control of the Central European country by the sovietic Union. Before traveling to the British capital Provaznikova led a demonstration in Prague of more than 20,000 female athletes in support of the ousted President Edvard Benes. Once in London and after winning the gold medal to her gymnasts, of whom she was a coach, Provaznikova applied for asylum in the United States. “I am a political refugee and I am proud of it,” she declared then defiantly.
Not surprisingly, with this precedent, the Czech Republic was one of the first countries to offer to host Tsimanuskaia when it became known of the intentions to flee the tyranny of Belarusian President Alexandr Lukashenko and also the first time that the COI protect an athlete. “What is similar to the Cold War is that a state wants to monitor the comings and goings of its athletes. The USSR refused to participate in the Olympic Games until 1952. It agreed to participate in exchange for a specific Olympic village for its athletes so that they could not flee to the West. So there was an Olympic village for men, another for women and another for Soviet athletes or athletes from communist countries ”, assures Pascal Boniface, director and founder of the think tank French Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) in an email. “In Europe there is a new iron curtain between the EU and the countries that are under Russian influence,” says Javier Roldán, professor of Public International Law and International Relations at the University of Granada in a telephone conversation. “The Belarusian regime would not be possible without the support of Moscow. Dictatorships increasingly persecute dissidents, not only within, but also outside their borders ”.
Much more famous was the escape carried out by dozens of Hungarian athletes at the Melbourne Games in 1956. Weeks before the celebration, Soviet tanks had crushed the Hungarian revolution in the streets of Budapest. The Hungarian Olympic team found out what happened from the press when they had already landed in the Australian capital. From that event, the water polo semifinal that faced Hungary and the Soviet Union remains in the memory of the sport and which was renamed “the bloody bath” due to the violence with which the players of both teams were used. Most of the Hungarian athletes found refuge in the United States, others in Australia and some returned to their country. That same year, some legendary footballers such as Czibor, Kocsis and Puskas, among others, fled to Spain.
Since then, and especially in the 1970s, the flight of athletes from the Soviet bloc became common. Munich 72 and Montreal 76 witnessed the flight of dozens of athletes, mostly Russians and Romanians. More recently, months before Beijing 2008, seven players from the Cuban U23 team decided to take refuge in a hotel in Florida until they obtained asylum in the United States and none of the five Cuban boxers who triumphed in Athens 2004 returned to compete for their country. at the games in the Chinese capital. Three escaped, another was expelled from the Olympic team for trying to flee and another withdrew.
But the Olympic Games constitute by themselves a chronology of world conflicts and an animated gallery of the gestures that marked the protest and the sensitivity of each era. After the exclusion of Germany in Antwerp 1920 and Paris 1924 as the defeated power in the First World War, Nazism did not hesitate to turn the Berlin Games of 1936 into a formidable instrument of propaganda for the Reich that was dreamed of eternal. Pressure from the United States forced the regime, under threat of boycott, to remove the posters of “undesirable Jews”, and French athletes parodied the Nazi salute in their parade, but the image that remained for history was Hitler’s refusal to congratulate and shake hands with African American athlete Jesse Owens. Years later, in Helsinki 1952 Germany would compete again and the USSR would debut under that name. In the following, Melbourne 1956, Spain and Holland would not go in protest by the Soviet invasion of Hungary; Iraq and Lebanon are not in retaliation against Israel or Mao’s China for the presence of Taiwan. Rome 1960 would mark the end of South Africa’s participation in the apartheid.
Mexico 1968 marked a milestone in the protest rally when US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium to receive their medals and raised their black-gloved fists in support of Black Power. From then on, gestures of protest followed each other to the point that in 1975 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) created rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, revised on many occasions and hardened in 2020, to prohibit any political, religious propaganda demonstration. or racial in Olympic venue with the risk of being sanctioned and even expelled the athlete who does it. However, there is little restrictions can do in the age of social media. As Patrick Merle, associate professor and director of the School of Communication at the University of Florida, says, “the new trend is that these types of demonstrations are now being made on social networks, in the case of Tsimanuskaia on Instagram, and the athletes seem more closely watched and controlled, depending on their countries of origin ”.
The games in Mexico were also marked by violence. Days before its inauguration, the government of President Díaz Ordaz drowned in blood the student revolt in Tlatelolco, causing dozens of deaths. Violence reappeared in Munich 72, whose official motto was “The Merry Games” when the Palestinian command Black September broke into the headquarters of Israel and kidnapped 11 athletes from this country. The operation ended in a massacre after Germany orchestrated an ambush at the airport in which terrorists and hostages planned to take a plane to Cairo. All the hostages were killed and only three of the assailants were arrested. Years later came the western boycott of the Moscow games in 1980 by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Kremlin would pay in the same currency by not attending Los Angeles 1984. But the world was beginning to change. In Barcelona 92 the USSR no longer participated – most of its former republics did so with the flag of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – and South Africa returned, already with Mandela. And the rise of China began, not only in sports.