Sports and politics getting mixed up together: It’s been all over the news lately, and yet it’s been going on forever.
The debate over NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racist treatment of black Americans, is just the latest controversy in a long history of athletes expressing themselves politically. And it’s not just players on the field who do it: Team owners, athletic organizations, and even entire nations have used the power and popularity of sports to make political statements.
In this gallery, we take a look back at the messy history of sports and politics, as seen in 66 pictures…
The 1908 Olympics in London got off to a rocky start, politically speaking.
When the Swedish flag was omitted from a display above the stadium, Sweden decided not take part in the opening ceremony.
Meanwhile, Finland had its own flag problems. Since Finland was part of the Russian Empire, the Finnish team was expected to march under the Russian flag.
Instead, many Finnish athletes chose to march with no flag at all.
Much of the political controversy at the 1908 Games centered around tensions between Ireland and Great Britain.
Though part of the United Kingdom at the time, the Irish were clamoring for independence and many Irish athletes boycotted London in protest. In an attempt to keep the peace, British authorities changed the name of the team to “Great Britain/Ireland” and allowed Ireland to participate as a separate country in field hockey and polo (the Irish team would win silver medals in both).
But many Irish-born athletes chose to compete for the United States or Canada rather than under the Union Jack.
Two years earlier, at the Intercalated Games in Athens, Irish athlete Peter O’Connor (1872–1957) staged his own protest against British rule.
After winning the triple jump, O’Connor climbed the flagpole and replaced the Union Jack with a green flag embellished with a shamrock and the words “Erin go Bragh” — Ireland forever.
Irish athletes won a large number of medals at the 1908 London Olympics, but for the most part their accomplishments were credited to Great Britain, the United States, or Canada.
According to History Ireland, “contemporary reports held that ‘the Irish athletes were furious because they had to take part under the colours of Great Britain and their successes would not be credited to Ireland’.”
In 1910 Jack Johnson (1878–1946) was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, the first African American to hold the title, and one of the most famous men on the planet.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, who made the documentary “Unforgivable Blackness” about Johnson, has said this about the athlete:
“Johnson in many ways is an embodiment of the African-American struggle to be truly free in this country — economically, socially and politically … He absolutely refused to play by the rules set by the white establishment, or even those of the Black community. In that sense, he fought for freedom not just as a Black man, but as an individual.”
For decades, White people had considered heavyweight champion of the world their exclusive domain, and many White people resented the fact that a Black man was now champ. Whites were determined to find a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson and reclaim the title.
Enter former undefeated White heavyweight champion, James Jeffries (1875–1953). Jeffries, who previously had retired rather than face Johnson and give him a shot at the title, came out of retirement to fight the champ. One might think he was in it for the money (the winner would receive a hefty purse) and maybe he was.
But Jeffries also had another motive, saying before the match:
“I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a White man is better than a Negro.”
Johnson and Jeffries met in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910. Johnson won by TKO in the 15th round.
His victory sparking a nationwide wave of riots in which numerous African Americans died. Newspaper editorials warned Johnson and the Black community not to be too proud.
Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson beating his White opponents would provoke further unrest.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin are remembered for the amazing athletic performance of Jesse Owens (1913–1980), who not only defeated his opponents—he laid waste to Hitler’s claim of Aryan (i.e. White) superiority.
Owens’ victories showed the Nazis’ idea of a “master race” was obviously wrong. Still, Nazi oppression of minorities in Germany continued, and grew worse.
In the years leading up to the 1936 Olympics, Jews and other groups faced increasing hostility—and decreasing civil liberties—in Nazi-controlled Germany. Jewish athletes, for example, were barred from participating in organized sport—athletic clubs were declared “Aryan only.”
As discrimination intensified, many called on democratic governments to boycott the 1936 Olympic Games, or for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the Games out of Berlin.
Initially American Olympic Committee (AOC) president Avery Brundage condemned discrimination against Jewish athletes in Germany, saying in 1933:
“The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
Despite his 1933 statement, however, Brundage—who also learned in 1933 that he was being considered for prestigious IOC membership—became a zealous advocate for U.S. participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
In the end, the Games went on in Berlin as planned, with a record number of nations participating, though many individual athletes made the decision to boycott.
For Jewish athletes, there perhaps was no good answer. German Jews were barred from competing by the Nazi government. Some Jewish athletes, like Polish discus thrower Jadwiga Wajs (1912–1990), chose to compete, while others, like Canadian boxer Sammy Luftspring (1916–2000), boycotted Berlin.
In the decades that followed Berlin, nearly every Olympics would be boycotted by at least one nation or another, for one political grievance or another.
But in 1936, not one country stood up to the oppressive regime of Hitler by refusing to participate. Instead nations from around the world gathered in Germany, legitimizing its authoritarian Nazi government.
Within less than a decade, six million Jews would be dead, slaughtered by the Nazis.
The Melbourne Olympics were the setting for many national political stands, with at least seven nations boycotting for various reasons.
The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted to protest the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Hungary.
Hungary itself took a different approach, opting to go to the Games.
The Hungarian water polo team wound up facing the Soviets in a vicious match that had to be halted due to fighting amongst the players. Ervin Zador (1934–2012), seen here with blood streaming from his eye, was one of the players injured during the brawl. Hungary, up 4-0 when the game was stopped, was declared the winner and went home with the gold.
Meanwhile Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted in protest of Britain and France’s invasion of the Suez.
And China refused to participate because of the presence of Taiwan (then known as Formosa or Nationalist China) at the Games.
China would not return to the Olympics until 1980.
Before the 1960 Olympics in Rome, China once again withdrew because they wanted Taiwan banned from participating.
In response the IOC asked that Taiwan no longer march under the name “The Republic of China,” but instead use the name of Taiwan or Formosa.
Taiwan considered boycotting the games in protest, but in the end decided to participate. Athletes from Taiwan, unhappy about the name change forced on them, marched into the Olympic stadium for the opening ceremony with a sign reading, “Under Protest.”
Reportedly, Avery Brundage, by then president of the IOC, had to be talked out of banning the Taiwanese delegation from participating.
In the 1960s, Muhammad Ali (1942–2016) was the greatest—the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world.
Then he took a stand against the Vietnam War, refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Army on religious grounds, risking his career and leading himself open to criminal prosecution.
“If I thought going to war would bring freedom, justice, and equality to the 22 million American Negroes in America, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow.”See Muhammad Ali’s best quotes
As a Muslim, Ali said he could not and would not fight a people who had done him no harm:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
For the next three-and-a-half years, Ali defended himself in court while being prohibited from defending his heavyweight boxing title in the ring. Ali endured the vitriol of White Americans who weren’t sure they liked the brash, Black Muslim boxer to begin with.
He was also criticized by Black Americans, including Jackie Robinson (1919–1972), for what at the time was viewed as an unpatriotic stance. Said Robinson, an athlete who two decades earlier had been a political focal point as the first African American to play Major League Baseball:
“He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam. And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.”
Meanwhile, inspired by Ali, some athletes, including basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (right), boycotted the 1968 Olympics.
On April 19, 1971, Chauncey Eskridge argued before the Supreme Court that Muhammad Ali was a legitimate conscientious objector, forbidden to fight by a religion in which he fervently believed. Two months later, the court declared a winner in Clay v. United States: a unanimous decision for Muhammad Ali.
“I would like to say to those of the press and those of the people who think that I lost so much by not taking this step, I would like to say that I did not lose a thing up until this very moment, I haven’t lost one thing. I have gained a lot. Number one, I have gained a peace of mind. I have gained a peace of heart.”
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos wanted to make a statement.
So they took off their shoes to protest poverty. They wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings. Smith and Carlos wore human rights badges, and each wore a black glove.
White Australian athlete Peter Norman (1942–2006) asked what he could do to support them and donned a human rights badge. Reportedly, it was Norman who gave them the American athletes the idea to each wear one of Smith’s gloves.
As the U.S. National Anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in the Black Power salute.
The crowd booed. Many screamed “The Star-Spangled Banner.” According to Carlos, “They screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.”
Smith and Carlos were immediately removed from the stadium for violating Olympic rules.
Back home, they were suspended from the U.S. track and field team and even received death threats.
Smith and Carlos’s Black Power salute has become one of the most iconic moments in sports history. There is even a sculpture at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture commemorating their protest.
“I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”John Carlos
Smith and Carlos weren’t the only athletes protesting oppression and violence at the 1968 Olympics.
In Mexico City, Czechoslovakian gymnast Věra Čáslavská (1942–2016) took on the Soviet Union, all by herself.
Going into 1968, Čáslavská was far and away the best gymnast in the world.
At the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, she won the overall title and took gold in the balance beam and the vault, in addition to a silver medal in the team event. Čáslavská defended her vault title at the 1966 World Championships, won a team gold—breaking the Soviet monopoly in that event—and became all-around world champion. She then dominated the 1967 European Championships, taking all individual titles and scoring perfect more than one perfect 10.
But 1968 was a challenging year for Czechoslovakia.
The democratization movement known as Prague Spring was gaining support. Then in August, the U.S.S.R. invaded the country, attempting to crush Czechoslovakia’s democratic ambitions.
Throughout 1968, Čáslavská was a vocal supporter of democracy in her home country—and an outspoken critic of communism and the Soviet invasion.
In the weeks before the Olympics, Čáslavská fled to the mountains, where she hid from Soviet authorities and continued to train despite having to improvise equipment. As she told the Los Angeles Times in 1990:
“While the Soviet gymnasts were already in Mexico City, adjusting to the altitude and the climate, I was hanging from trees, practicing my floor exercise in the meadow in front of the cottage and building callouses on my hands by shoveling coal.”
Even after training in primitive conditions while hiding for her life, Věra Čáslavská was still the best in the world, and her performance in Mexico City proved it. Afterwards, Čáslavská said, “We all tried harder to win in Mexico because it would turn the eyes of the world on our unfortunate country.”
Many people, Čáslavská included, felt she should have and would have won more, but for the controversial decisions of Soviet judges whose dubious scoring awarded golds to Soviet athletes—preventing Čáslavská from winning gold on beam and forcing her to share gold for floor exercise.
When the floor exercise medals were presented, Čáslavská staged her own anthem protest, bowing her head slightly and looking away while the Soviet national anthem played. “All of a sudden my hairs stood on end,” Čáslavská later said, “and I automatically turned my head not to the ground … but perceptively to the side away from the occupier’s flag.”
“We went to Mexico determined to sweat blood to defeat the invaders’ representatives.”Věra Čáslavská
In 1969 African American players on the University of Wyoming football team planned a simple, silent protest.
A year earlier, during a game against Brigham Young University, BYU team members taunted Wyoming’s Black players with racist epithets.
As the two teams prepared to meet in 1969, the Black players on the University of Wyoming team decided to wear black armbands to protest their treatment the prior year, as well as the Mormon Church’s refusal to allow Black men in the priesthood.
When they asked their coach, Lloyd Eaton, the day before the game, he not only said no. He kicked all 14 black players off the team.
The Black 14, as they became known, inspired protests at the University of Wyoming and across the country.
“We were protesting how we had been treated on the field, because we knew that it wasn’t right. We wanted to do something to shed some light on what was transpiring.”University of Wyoming player Tony McGee
The following year nine Black football players at Syracuse University took a stand to protest institutionalized racism and demand equality in the treatment of Black and White athletes.
The nine talented student athletes (who mistakenly became known as the Syracuse 8) boycotted the school’s football program.
The Syracuse nine—Greg Allen, Richard Bulls, John Godbolt, Dana Harrell, John Lobon, Clarence “Bucky” McGill, A. Alif Muhammad, Duane Walker, and Ron Womack—succeeded in getting the university’s attention.
The school’s chancellor appointed a committee to investigate. In December 1970, the committee released a report concluding that “racism in the Syracuse University Athletic Department is real, chronic, largely unintentional, and sustained and complicated unwittingly by many modes of behavior common in American athletics and long-standing at Syracuse University.”
According to Essence, the protest “ultimately led to an overhaul of best practices associated with college sports programs across the country.”
Coming off a tumultuous decade for politics and sports, the Nixon administration in 1971 decided to use sport to generate some positive PR—and help thaw relations between the U.S. and China.
The sport? Ping pong.
But so-called “ping pong diplomacy” didn’t begin with President Nixon.
According to author Nicholas Griffin, China was already engaged in “a determined campaign to deploy Ping-Pong as the ‘perfect instrument of Communist propaganda.'”
At the 31st World Table Tennis Championships, held in Japan in 1971, American player Glenn Cowan needed a ride.
He was invited by the Chinese team to board their bus. According to the Washington Post:
“China’s greatest table tennis player, Zhuang Zedong, got up, walked forward, shook Cowan’s hand and gave him a lavish gift, a silk-screen picture of a Chinese mountain scene.”
Chinese premier Zhou Enlai then invited the U.S. team to tour China and granted visas to foreign journalists to cover the trip.
A few months later, in February 1972, President Nixon made his historic visit to China.
Shortly after his return, Nixon hosted the Chinese table tennis team at the White House. He told them the “big winner” on their U.S. trip would be peace and friendship between the two countries.
Politics and sports collided in the most horrific way when terrorists kidnapped and murdered eleven Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich.
It was without a doubt the most terrible moment in modern sports history. The names of the athletes and coaches murdered in Munich should never be forgotten.
Just days before the opening of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, 28 African countries announced that they would boycott the Games.
The African nations were protesting New Zealand sending its national rugby team to tour South Africa in the wake of the government’s massacre of 350 anti-apartheid protesters.
The IOC had barred South Africa from competing beginning in 1964, and in 1970 expelled South Africa from the organization. The boycotting nations felt that by allowing New Zealand to participate in Montreal, the IOC was not doing enough to condemn the South African government and nations that supported it.
Though it would be many more years before South Africa would end apartheid, the attention that the 1976 boycott focused on the issue helped raise awareness. As the Montreal Gazette noted:
“‘Apartheid’ appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the world, and people started pressuring their own governments.”Read more
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter called on the U.S. and other nations to boycott the upcoming summer Olympics in Moscow.
In the end, the Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan as Carter demanded, and 55 countries—including Canada, Japan, and West Germany—joined the U.S. in a full boycott.
Other nations opted for less severe action, allowing athletes to attend but not sending an official delegation.
Some athletes from boycotting countries resented not being allowed to participate and missing their chance to win gold.
Four years later, the U.S.S.R. announced its own boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.
Essentially a boycott to protest the previous U.S. boycott, the Soviets said that 100 countries, including China, would join them in protesting the L.A. games.
In the end just 15 countries went along with the Soviet boycott.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles games saw record participation, with 140 nations competing.
In a surprising twist, China opted to participate for the first time in decades (and the very first time as the People’s Republic of China) despite pressure from the Soviet Union to stay away.
L.A. Olympic organizer Peter Ueberroth has said that he believes China saved the games.
Eric Rudolph wasn’t an athlete, but he chose the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as the venue for making a political statement. To protest abortion, Rudolph detonated a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park.
Two people died—American spectator Alice Hawthorne and Turkish journalist Melih Uzunyol—and more than 100 were wounded as a result of the terrorist attack.
More likely would have died but for the actions of Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the bomb and helped to clear the area before the explosion.
Cathy Freeman had been in the political spotlight since 1994 when she sparked controversy for running a victory lap with both the Aboriginal and Australian flags.
At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, all eyes were on the track superstar whose celebrity “brought greater attention to the political issues affecting Aboriginal Australians,” according to NITV.
Freeman pulled off the performance of a lifetime, winning Olympic gold in the 400 metres in her home country.
Said Freeman in a documentary about the Sydney Olympics:
“It was always a dream of mine to not only win an Olympic gold medal but to do the victory lap with both flags.”
At the Sydney Olympics, Freeman did both.
In the wake of 9/11, Pat Tillman famously put his professional football career on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Though Tillman did not make any public statements at the time about his decision to enlist, many in the early days of the Iraq War lauded Tillman as a symbol of patriotism and bravery, a rhetoric that intensified after Tillman was killed.
Recently, Tillman has been mentioned by President Donald Trump and others as a reason why NFL players should stand for the National Anthem.
A 2009 biography of Tillman revealed that he did not want to be used as a propaganda tool.
He worried that, if he were killed, the Army might try to turn him into a poster boy, something he wanted nothing to do with.
His widow has echoed those sentiments in recent weeks, speaking out against those who would use Tillman to make their point about standing for the National Anthem.
“Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us.”Marie Tillman
Rory Fanning, a former Army Ranger who served alongside Tillman, went a step further.
He said he believes that if Pat were around today, he’d be taking a knee with Kaepernick and the other NFL players. “Pat cared about people who were exploited, people who were oppressed,” said Fanning.
As Tillman himself wrote in 2002:
“Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. . . . It’s no longer important.”