Racial Controversies and the Olympic Games

Olympic Rings at St. Pancras in London
Olympic Rings at St. Pancras in London. Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Given that competitors from across the globe compete in the Olympic Games, it’s no surprise that racial tensions will flare on occasion. Athletes in the 2012 Olympic Games in London sparked controversy by making racial jabs about people of color online. Fans set off scandals as well by taking to Twitter to lob xenophobic insults at players from rival countries. And the International Olympic Committee itself was accused of anti-Semitism for not honoring the Israeli athletes killed by terrorists at the 1972 Olympic Games with a moment of silence during opening ceremonies 40 years later.

This roundup of racial controversies linked to the 2012 Olympics reveals the state of global race relations and how much progress the world needs to make in order for all people—athletes and otherwise—to be considered equals.

No Moment of Silence for Victims of Munich Massacre

During the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, a Palestinian terrorist group called Black September killed 11 Israeli competitors after taking them hostage. The survivors of those killed asked the International Olympic Committee to have a moment of silence for the slain athletes during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre. The IOC refused, leading the family members of the victims to accuse Olympic officials of anti-Semitism. Ankie Spitzer, the wife of the late fencing coach Andre Spitzer, remarked, “Shame on the IOC because you have forsaken the 11 members of your Olympic family.

You are discriminating against them because they are Israelis and Jews,” she said.

Ilana Romano, widow of weightlifter Yossef Romano, agreed. She said that IOC president Jacques Rogge told her during a meeting that it was difficult to answer whether or not the IOC would have approved a moment of silence for the murdered athletes had they not been Israelis.

“One could feel the discrimination in the air,” she said.

European Athletes Make Racist Remarks on Twitter

Before Greek triple jump athlete Paraskevi “Voula” Papahristou even had a chance to compete in the Olympics, she was kicked off her country’s team. Why? Papahristou sent out a tweet disparaging Africans in Greece. On July 22, she wrote in Greek, “With so many Africans in Greece, at least the mosquitoes of West Nile will eat homemade food.” Her message was re-tweeted more than 100 times and the 23-year-old quickly faced an angry backlash. After the scandal she apologized, “I would like to express my heartfelt apologies for the unfortunate and tasteless joke I published on my personal Twitter account,” she said. “I am very sorry and ashamed for the negative responses I triggered, since I never wanted to offend anyone, or to encroach human rights.”

Papahristou wasn’t the only Olympic athlete penalized for being racially insensitive on Twitter. Soccer player Michel Morganella was booted off the Swiss team after he referred to South Koreans as a “bunch of Mongoloids” on the social networking site. He made the race-based jab after South Korea beat the Swiss team in soccer on July 29. Gian Gilli, head of the Swiss Olympic delegation, explained in a statement that Morganella was removed from the team for having “said something insulting and discriminatory” about his South Korean rivals.

“We condemn these remarks,” Gilli stated.

Was Monkey Gymnast Commercial a Swipe at Gabby Douglas?

After 16-year-old Gabby Douglas became the first black gymnast to win the gold medal for the women’s all-around in the sport, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas remarked, “There are some African-American girls out there who tonight are saying to themselves: ‘Hey, I’d like to try that too.’” Shortly after Douglas’ image appeared during Costas’ commentary on NBC, the network that broadcast the Olympics in the U.S., a commercial for new sitcom “Animal Practice” featuring a monkey gymnast aired.

Many viewers felt that the monkey gymnast was somehow a racial jab at Douglas, since she’s black and racists historically likened African Americans to monkeys and apes. The network apologized in light of a torrent of negative feedback from viewers. It said the commercial was simply a case of bad timing and that the “Animal Practice” advertisement didn’t aim to offend anyone.

American Soccer Fans Send Out Anti-Japanese Tweets

For the fourth time in a row, the U.S. women’s soccer team took home the gold medal. They surged to the top during the London Olympics by defeating the Japanese women’s soccer team. After their 2-1 victory, fans took to Twitter not simply to rejoice but also to make racially tinged remarks about the Japanese. “This ones for Pearl Harbor you Japs,” wrote one tweeter. Many others tweeted similar comments. Discussing the controversy, Brian Floyd of the website SB Nation begged such tweeters to stop posting racially insensitive comments.

“That wasn’t for Pearl Harbor,” he wrote. “It was a…soccer game. Please, for the love of everything, stop doing this, guys. It doesn’t reflect well on any of us. Stop being awful.”

“Exotic Beauty” Lolo Jones Dominates Track and Field Media Coverage

Sprinter Lolo Jones wasn’t the top track and field star to represent the United States during the Olympic Games, prompting fellow American runners as well as New York Times writer Jere Longman to point out that Jones garnered a disproportionate amount of media coverage.

Why was Jones reported on more than American runners such as Dawn Harper and Kellie Wells? Those women came in at second and third place, respectively, in the women’s 100 meter hurdle, while Jones came in fourth. Longman of the Times says that the biracial Jones has capitalized on her “exotic beauty” to compensate for her shortcomings as an athlete. Danielle Belton of Clutch magazine said that members of the mostly white and male news media gravitate toward Jones because, “What is of interest [to] them is a pretty girl, preferably white or as close as you can get to it, who can also do ‘sports.’” Colorism, Belton said, is why the media largely overlooked darker-skinned runners Harper and Wells to cover Jones.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Racial Controversies and the Olympic Games." ThoughtCo, Apr. 30, 2017, thoughtco.com/racial-controversies-and-the-olympic-games-2834660. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2017, April 30). Racial Controversies and the Olympic Games. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-controversies-and-the-olympic-games-2834660 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Racial Controversies and the Olympic Games." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/racial-controversies-and-the-olympic-games-2834660 (accessed November 21, 2017).