In his recent open letter to David Cameron and the IOC urging an ‘absolute ban’ on the Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi, Stephen Fry invoked the ‘stain on the Five Rings’ of the 1936 Olympics. But while Fry’s defence of LGBT rights is unassailable, his analogy was a tired one.
Stirring up memory of 1936 is always an emotive card to play. No one would deny that ‘The notorious Berlin Olympiad’, as Fry dubs it, provided a grotesque manipulation of sport for political purpose. But it’s important to point out that we’ve been here before.
From Russia With Love: 1936 in 1980
Fry’s comments were soon latched on to by the British mainstream media. The location of the 2014 Winter Games in a Russian city soon had media commentators reaching for parallels with the American-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics of 1980. Then, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter administration spearheaded a Western boycott of the Games.
Anticipating this American manipulation of sport for political purposes, the same invocation of 1936 was rolled out by those protesting against Soviet human rights violations against minorities and dissidents in the late 1970s. Back then, reference to 1936 came from both sides of the British political divide.
In December 1978, the Labour MP Eric Moonman initiated a debate in the House of Commons in which he cited Berlin 1936, suggesting that Moscow would provide a propaganda opportunity for the Soviet Union on the scale achieved by the Third Reich thirty four years previously. He was joined by former Labour Minister for Sport Denis Howell MP, who praised the defiance of American athlete Jesse Owens in 1936.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 provided grist to the mill of those advocating a boycott. Later that year, Tory peer John Boyd-Carpenter claimed that the military situation in Afghanistan was analogous to the tactics used to take possession of nations by the dictatorships of the 1930s. And recently released records from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office indicate that reference to Nazi war-mongering were made by various pressure groups, particularly those campaigning on behalf of Soviet Jews.
Putin’ In while Pullin’ Out
When Margaret Thatcher followed suit and invoked a direct comparison between 1936 and 1980 it seemed that those advocating a boycott had triumphed. But despite Thatcher’s support of the American-led boycott, Britain allowed their athletes to participate if they wished.
This ultimately ineffective endorsement of the boycott is crucial. Realpolitik demanded such an ineffective support for the boycott, with Britain’s equivocal position upsetting neither of the Cold Warriors too much.
Regardless of Thatcher’s personal distrust of the Soviet Union, Foreign and Commonwealth Office documents demonstrate government understanding of the need to maintain some level of détente. In other words, geopolitical reality trumped passionate human rights pleas.
Not 1936 Again? *Sigh*
If the Thatcher government of the Cold War were willing to practically ignore the emotive and well-worn analogy of 1936 by letting British athletes compete (while at the same time the political establishment bellowed ‘1936’ from the rooftops) then did Fry seriously expect to David Cameron’s government to back an ‘absolute ban’?
Surely not. Fry’s real triumph has, of course, been the publicity of the infringement of LGBT rights in Putin’s Russia. And here’s to that.
But, in doing so, his well-worn invocation of 1936 Olympics provided a rather inaccurate and very much hackneyed analogy that had me breathing a heavy sigh.
Fry finishes his open letter by writing ‘the Summer Olympics of 2012 were one of the most glorious moments of my life and the life of my country’. If we are to stoop to the level of rough-edged historical analogy, it’s worth pointing out that in 2012 London played host to the Thirtieth Olympiad, despite British armed forces being present in Afghanistan. Thirty-two years earlier, owing to the host nation’s invasion of that same country, the West attempted to boycott the twenty-second Olympiad.
During 2012, was Stephen Fry vocal in condemning the inevitable infringements of human rights in the Western invasion of Afghanistan? Nope. This only adds to my impression that Fry’s recent outburst was, although well intentioned, tired and very selective. 1936 might strike a chord, but for me it’s a repetitive and discordant one.