Sports and politics have always mixed at the Olympics

Jesse Owens and Paavo Nurmi, Johnny Weissmuller and Mark Spitz, Fanny Blankers-Koen and Larisa Latynina are just some of the stars of the modern Olympics, which reaches a new milestone at the Beijing Games.

But the first Games in the world’s most populous country also highlight how difficult it has been over those 112 years to keep sports and politics apart.

At the first modern-era Games in Athens in 1896, Hungary had its own team, even though it was politically part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin citing “Olympic geo-politics which annuls state sovereignty”.

American triple jumper James Connolly became the first Olympic champion in about 1 580 years in Athens since Byzantine Emperor Theodosius put an end to the ancient Games in 400AD.

Greek shepherd Spiridon Louis was the marathon hero of those 1896 Games in Athens, which brought together 245 male athletes from 14 countries.

Nowadays an Olympics is a marathon in itself, a gigantic event bringing together more than 10 000 men and women who compete for 302 gold medals in 28 sports—closely followed by 25 000 media on site and a television audience in its billions.

The International Olympic Committee makes millions of dollars from its sponsors and television rights, and professional athletes were allowed in during the 1980s amid growing commercialism.

Finnish distance running legend Paavo Nurmi had his brushes with the amateur rules as he was not allowed to compete in 1932 in Los Angeles after winning nine golds at earlier Olympics.

American swimmer Weissmuller had a different approach as his fame from three 1924 gold medals allowed him to go to the movies to become Tarzan.

Jesse Owens became the first real superstar with four golds in 1936 in Berlin, in the 100m, 200m, long jump and 4x100m (a feat only matched by Carl Lewis in 1984).

The medals from the African-American Owens were an embarrassment for German leader Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi regime wanted to show the superiority of the Aryan race through the Games.

Germany were banned from the Olympics after World War I and II, before the Cold War and other political affairs cast their long shadow over later Games.

Eleven people died 1972 in Munich after Palestinian extremists attacked the Israeli team quarters.

IOC boss Avery Brundage famously said at the time that “The Games must go on,” and they did.

They also eventually survived the US-led Moscow 1980 boycott (over the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan) and the Soviet-led riposte of 1984 in Los Angeles (allegedly over security concerns).

Spitz’s seven golds in the 1972 pool is still the leading tally at one Olympics and his nine overall is only matched by Nurmi, Lewis and the legendary Soviet gymnast, Larissa Latynina.

Growing commercialism, allowing plenty of fame and fortune in the case of Olympic glory, has also prompted some to seek the help of illegal substances.

Ben Johnson was famously stripped of his 100m gold in 1988 after testing positive for steroids and Marion Jones lost three golds and two bronze from 2000 after admitting years later, when confronted with imprisonment, to having also doped.

Now comes Beijing August 8 to 24, which will highlight just about every aspect of the Olympics.

Sponsors are delighted to be in one of the fastest-growing markets on the planet, China has built spectacular venues in a big propaganda show, there were boycott threats over China’s dealing of the unrest in Tibet, 4 500 doping tests are to assure clean Games and American swimmer Michael Phelps could be the first athlete with 10 golds.—Sapa-dpa

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