In preparing for this morning’s Sport for Business Smart Minds event on Sport and the Politics of Protest we indulged a little historic context which we share below.

They are far from exhaustive in a story that is ever changing but it does point out that this is not a new issue.


The Berlin Olympic Games were perhaps the most egregious example of sport being politicised. Adolf Hitler’s warped ideas on Aryan supremacy were dented by Jesse Owens on the track but how did the world not cry foul at the time. There had been serious unease in the United States in particular but Avery Brundage, the USOC President at the time was strongly in favour of competing.

In a tight vote of delegates the decision was made to take part and Owen’s legend was made possible. Brundage competed himself in the Art competition and went on to become President of the IOC from 1952 to 1972.

Three countries did boycott the games. Russia, Spain which was in the throes of Civil War and Ireland. Our reason was a little more prose than poetry though. A row over the border and the ability of athletes from Northern Ireland to compete for Ireland meant that the Irish Olympic Council backed our Cycling Union and did not send a team. It was the only irish boycott of a games.


Israel were members of the Asian Football Federation but the Arab countries they were due to play in World Cup qualification refused to play them and were disqualified.

Israel was on the verge of playing at the finals without having kicked a ball but then a play-off match was put together in which Israel were drawn to play Belgium among the teams that had finished second on their European groups. Belgium refused to play and Wales were drawn next.

Managed by Man United Assistant Manager the Irish sounding Jimmy Murphy, Wales won each leg 2-0 and advanced to their first ever World Cup Finals.


Tommie Smith and John Carlos came first and third in the 200 metres at the Mexico Olympics but it was their actions on the medal podium for which they are best remembered.

The games took place less than 100 days after the murder of Martin Luther King and race tension was high. The two athletes raised their fists wearing black gloves as the national anthem played. Smith’s right hand and Carlos’ left because they only had one pair between them.

They were vilified by their own media and sent home in disgrace by the USOC. It took forty years before they were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award as a belated apology for the treatment and recognition of their right to protest.

1976 to 1988

The decade of the Olympic Boycotts. 34 countries boycotted Montreal, followed by 67 in Moscow, 19 in Los Angeles and 7 in Seoul.

It was the height of the Cold War and the Russia US narrative put sport firmly in the spotlight. Britain, led by Margaret Thatcher said that they would boycott the Moscow Games but that they would not stop individual sports from taking part. Sebastian Coe took part and won Gold before going on to lead the bid to host the London Games and the IAAF.

Thomas Bach was denied a chance to take part for Germany and went on to become the President of the IOC where he has maintained a strong participation over boycott stance.


The Silver Jubilee presentation of All Ireland Winning Teams was given extra fizz in 1999. David Hickey, a member of the Dublin team from 1974 took off his jacket to reveal a message to “End the Cuban Blockade.”

I had no choice he told the Irish Times after the protest.

“Nobody seems to know that for 40 years the United States has blockaded Cuba. There was a medical system there that was the pride of the Caribbean, but it is being systematically destroyed because of a lack of standard medical equipment and medicines.”


The English Premier League and Football League began asking teams to wear a poppy badge to commemorate Remembrance Day in 2012.

James McClean has to this day refused to do so, citing his personal upbringing in Derry City where the British Army were on the streets. He said that if it was to remember the dead of the first world war as most think it is, he would have worn it but the scope of the commemoration was for all conflicts and so he could not take part.

He has been subject to vicious abuse at every ground he has played on since.

One body that supported him though was the Royal British Legion who organise the annual Poppy commemoration. They said that it was to support his freedom to choose whether to wear the poppy that so many soldiers had fought and died.


Colin Kaepernick was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers when to protest police brutality and social inequality he knelt during the National Anthem.

Donald trump was elected to the Presidency during that season and was scathing in his criticism. Kaepernick was cut from the team after that season and has not played an NFL game since then.


The Qatar World cup of 2022 was heavily criticised in advance for the host country’s stance on a variety of social issues, not least the illegality of same sex relationships.

England were one of the teams that were determined to wear a pride themed captains armband but in the end backed down because of the threat of yellow cards being issued and player participation in the tournament being compromised.

Lest we forget, when Ireland qualified for Italia ’90 same sex relationships were illegal here as well.


Glasgow Celtic fans flew thousands of Palestine Flags in protest at Israel’s retaliatory action in Gaza in which to date over 20,000 civilians, many of them women and children have been killed.

UEFA asked that flags and political demonstration be prohibited with fines and other penalties being threatened but fan power overcame this, just as ‘taking the knee’ had done for a number of years previously.


Just Oil protesters disrupted a number of high profile sporting events from Wimbledon to the Open Championship, throwing Orange dust across pitches and players to protest against the fossil fuel industry.

Environmental activism is on the rise and is likely to have as powerful an impact on sport for the next few years, just as political protest has in the past.

There are so many other examples, from Apartheid in South Africa to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but that is a price which sport pays for its prominence in the lives of so many of the world’s population.

We will have a report from this morning’s Sport for Business Smart Minds event on Sport and Political protest tomorrow morning.


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