Reclaiming the 1976 Montreal Boycott from Olympic marginalisation

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[This is a (slightly) modified transcript of a piece I recently added to the counter-Olympics project: A Different Five Rings.]


As the discourse around the Beijing Olympics shifts from human rights struggles and diplomatic boycotts to athlete performance, it seems timely to return to a marginalised part of the Olympic story. The boycott of the 1976 Montreal Olympics by 29 nations was prompted by continuing and recalcitrant sporting contact between New Zealand and apartheid South Africa. It’s a case often relegated to the margins in Olympic histories, but it is one that has resonance across and beyond global sport. It’s also a story that brings together three distinct phenomena into a single incident. While grounded in the international campaign supporting South African liberation struggles, the act had profound implications for the place of the Olympics in international sporting relations and for cultural networks and hierarchies that sustain imperialism and empire.

The usual narrative of Olympic activist disruption, often presented as the ‘politicisation of the games’ – as if they’re not inherently political – starts in Mexico in 1968 with Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ podium protest supported by Australian Peter Norman: it’s one of the 20th century’s iconic moments. The story then goes on to the Black September attack during the Munich Games, there’s a brief mention of Montreal and then on to the often labelled tit-for-tat boycotts in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. Labelling those two events tit-for-tat downplays legitimate concerns the Soviets and their allies might have had about safety and security in the midst of the Cold War and US President Ronald Reagan’s bellicosity, and in Cold War terms helped assert an image Soviet insincerity. Sometimes this narrative goes a little further back to the 1964 decision to suspend South Africa for its apartheid policies, policies that maintained a white supremacist colonial state, but this is often little more than a footnote.

The other thing about this narrative is how much it is dominated by Western and Euro-American perspectives. This means that Czechoslovak gymnast Věra Čáslavská’s podium protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia also in 1968 is barely recognised, although she paid a perhaps greater price than that paid by Smith, Carlos & Norman. In addition, it’s hard not to conclude that part of the reason for the downplaying of the Montreal boycott is that it was mainly African nations that acted: the dominant story of Montreal was its cost blowout, the financial crisis it engendered and the subsequent tale asserting the capitalist fantasy of the superiority of private enterprise wrapped up in the myths of the 1984 Los Angeles games.

Stepping back to the eve of the 1976 games, it’s easy to feel the IOC’s sigh of relief when they found a solution to the ‘Two Chinas’ problem – how to have teams from both the People’s Republic and Taiwan in the same event, even if that solution came too late for the PRC team to participate. How quickly that bubble burst when the next day 29 teams withdrew because the New Zealanders where there while their national rugby team had just finished a tour of South Africa. That tour coincided with the revolutionary upsurge in anti-apartheid struggles beginning in Soweto in June with schoolchildren’s opposition to being taught in Afrikaans, seen widely as the language of the oppressor. Not only was the rugby tour an act against the liberation struggle, the intensification of struggle that it coincided with marked a profound shift in global consciousness and activism.

The back story matters here. Since the mid 1950s there had been a growing international campaign to isolate South Africa because of its apartheid policies – a regime that maintained a totalitarian white supremacist state where absolute power lay with the 12% of the population legally classified White. One of South Africa’s most important international cultural links was its sporting relations with other former British colonies, and perhaps the most important of those for White South Africa was its rugby contacts with New Zealand. Those contacts violated international boycott calls and were a heated issue in New Zealand, where the conservative National Party had won the 1975 general election with the protection of those contacts as a major part of its platform.

So even though rugby was not an Olympic sport, 27 African nations, Guyana and (pre-revolutionary) Iran took the view that any sporting contact was a violation of the international sanctions imposed and that they would not compete in an event that New Zealand was at. Their teams left, most before the games started – or in a few cases never arrived. The withdrawal was a major blow to standing but also saw the absence of many of the world’s leading athletes, especially in track and field, with teams from Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania among those withdrawing.

Paradoxically, despite it being downplayed in 1968-84 disruption narrative, this boycott is perhaps the most geopolitically important moment of the era – although there is a powerful case also to be made for the 1972 Black September attacks. First, the 1976 boycott’s relegation highlights the way that the dominant narrative prioritises and grants agency to Western European and North American interests and perspectives. Here the active forces were majority world nations, mainly African, acting against the interests of that North Atlantic nexus and its allies. This suggests at best a colonial blindness, if not an inherent white supremacy, in the historical narrative.

Second, the boycotters in their actions held the New Zealand sports world collectively responsible for the actions of one of its members, even though rugby union was not an Olympic sport. Until 1976, most of the campaigning for the isolation of South Africa was within each sports’ structure, so campaigns about rugby union contact, for instance, focused on national and international rugby unions. In asserting this collective responsibility, this boycott redefined the locus of struggle for a comprehensive boycott from individual sport structures to sport-as-a-system. This sense of collective responsibility has influenced debates around and tactics within similar campaigns since.

Third, in this shift to third-party responsibility this boycott shifted the global relations of power around the international movement to isolate South Africa. We see this most obviously in the British Commonwealth where South Africa’s major cultural links were with Britain and white settler states. By 1976 this had become mainly the UK and New Zealand – although there were different primary economic links, while the majority of Commonwealth States were marginalised, with many acting to isolate South Africa as much as possible. As a result of this shift to third party responsibility, in 1977 the Commonwealth’s Gleneagles Agreement saw all member states agree to take action to prevent contact with South Africa, something the so-called ‘Old, White’ Commonwealth had resisted, although conservative governments in both the UK and New Zealand took only minimal action.

This shift marked a profound change in the power dynamics of one of the world’s major multistate organisations as a direct result of the Montreal boycott, and a challenge to the prevailing cultural system of imperial dominance. It’s hard not to see this as part of the reason for the way the dominant narrative marginalises this boycott. It’s an event that has a lot to tell us about the ways we remember the Olympics, the ways we do our history and the things we need to be considering in making sense of relations within and of international sport and more. It deserves more attention.

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