As we draw closer to the upcoming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro (now only just 62 days away) it is interesting to reflect upon how sport can act as a common unifier of people and cultures within a competitive context. According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic Games are intended to maintain free of political conflicts and propaganda. However, on occasion throughout history, the Games have been used to service particular political agendas and ideologies, with the one prominent example being ‘Hitler’s Olympics’ in Berlin in 1936. This blog post will succulently outline the context behind Romania’s decision to compete in the 1984 Summer Olympics and briefly outline the country’s superlative performance at that instalment of the Games.
The 1979 Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan prompted a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. In retaliation, the USSR chose not to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and strongly encouraged other Communist countries to do the same. Ultimately, Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country that elected not to boycott. When the nation’s contingent of athletes entered the LA Coliseum for the opening ceremonies, they received a ‘thunderous standing ovation’ that was indicative of the symbolic significance of Romania’s decision not to tow the Soviet line.
Romania performed extremely well at the Games, winning a total of 53 medals (placing 3rd in the overall medal table). The country won 20 gold medals, a sum surpassed only by the United States. Romania’s achievements are even more remarkable given the fact that the country sent only 125 athletes to compete. One discipline in which Romania was particularly dominant was women’s artistic gymnastics. Led by stars like World Champion Ecaterina Szabo, the country secured 5 of the 8 gold medals awarded. Romania has not since surpassed the record-setting medal count they achieved at the 1984 Summer Games.
Romania’s decision to participate in the 1984 Games was not however devoid of political motivation and significance. According to historian Harold E. Wilson, the country’s President Nicolae Ceausescu wished to show to the ‘West’ that Romania was capable of pursuing policies independent of the USSR, which subsequently led some to characterize the nation as the ‘maverick of Eastern Europe.’ So while the USSR’s boycott was undoubtedly a political act, so too, in some respects, was Romania’s decision to participate.
This is all to arrive at a more general conclusion. Ideally, sport should be insulated from the political sphere as completely as possible, although in practice this is often difficult to achieve. Sport can serve to foster an appreciation of diversity, enhance intercultural exchange, and reinforce the notion of ‘internationalism’. Yet the opposite may also be the case, with sport serving to divide not unify. In our attempts to cultivate greater ‘Global Citizenship’ I believe it to be necessary for us, as a human community, to maximize instances of the former and minimize instances of the latter.