The drama behind East Germany’s 1968 acceptance into the Olympic fold revealed

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Kristian Gerner
Dept. of History, Lund University


Heather L. Dichter
Bidding for the 1968 Olympic Games: International Sport’s Cold War Battle with NATO
275 pages, paperback
Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press 2021 (Culture and Politics in the Cold War and Beyond)
ISBN 978-1-62534-595-0

Heather Dichter demonstrates that 1968 is an especially remarkable year in Cold War history. At the time, governments as well as sport organizations repeated the mantra that politics should not be allowed to influence sports. However, in 1968 sports exerted a major influence on politics. The soft power of the IOC turned out to be stronger than the hard power of NATO. The issue was the international standing of East Germany, the GDR.

1968 is remembered usually as the year when the Olympic Games became part of global political unrest. The remarkable events were the Prague Spring and the Soviet suppression of it, the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, the anti-war demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the student protest movements in France, Italy and West Germany – and the Black Power salute by the African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Heather Dichter does not even mention the latter incident, although the 1968 Summer Olympic Games are best remembered exactly for the manifestation by Smith and Carlos, in addition to the introduction of the Fosbury flop in high jump and Bob Beamon’s incredible 890 cm long jump. The granting of the Summer Olympics to Mexico City was not an issue in the Cold War. And the Cold War is what Dichter’s book is all about. Her story is not about sport per se, it is about a turning point in the history of NATO and about the (vainglorious!) international political triumph of the GDR.

On August 13 1961 the GDR regime built a wall through Berlin. West Berlin was part of West Germany, the FRG, whereas East Berlin was the capital of the GDR. The erection of the wall aimed at closing the hole in East Germany’s boundary that made it possible for East Germans to easily flee the GDR. The act reinforced the salience of the German question as the focal point of the Cold War in Europe. The FRG and thus NATO did not recognize the GDR (the so-called Hallstein doctrine).

Dichter writes history in the scale of 1:1. The reader becomes a virtual participant in the sessions of the IOC and of NATO’s Committee of Political Advisors.

It must be observed that the Second World War did not end with a formal peace treaty until 1990. West German sovereignty was circumscribed. The three western occupation powers the USA, the UK and France controlled the decisions regarding East Germans wanting to visit or transit countries outside the Warsaw Treaty Organization (WTO). Dichter shows that although “the very concept of NATO” presupposed unanimous decisions, in the East German travel issue the three major powers’ desires in conjunction with those of West Germany held sway. However, other NATO states “pushed back on these regulations when their national interests and domestic public opinion of the alliance came under attack.” (p. 17). Dichter writes a lot about the “push back” attempts of smaller nations but makes clear that it took a major power, France, for the visa restrictions for East Germans to be overcome. The Winter Olympic Games of 1968 took place in Grenoble, France.

The core of the issue in the competition to host the Olympics was the provision that athletes from all states must be able to participate. For this to be possible every athlete must get a visa för entry into the prospective host country. Because the NATO states did not recognize the GDR, its citizens could not be certain of getting a visa that was granted by NATO’s Allied Travel Office. In the context of Dichter’s history, “national interests” refer to the perceived beneficial effects for the bidding city/state in hosting the Olympics and “domestic public opinion” to the fact that in most NATO member states the public was of the opinion that East German athletes should not be denied visas –in accordance with the mantra that politics should not be applied to sport.

Dichter’s book is an alternative history of “1968” as a year not of conflict or oppression but of détente in the world of sport. This is the story of how the German Democratic Republic, the GDR, came in from the Cold. It is the story of how the internationals sport society challenged NATO’s hegemony in international relations. Here NATO emerges as something more than merely a military defense alliance. It stands out as a prominent actor in international politics – and international sport stands out as an important arena in international politics.

Heather Dichter scrutinizes meeting protocols and reports from twenty-four archives, ranging from the NATO archive in Brussels and the Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, through the national and foreign ministry archives in the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Canada and Norway and the city archives of application cities such as Grenoble, Lyon, Lake Placid, Ottawa and Oslo, to archives of international sport organizations. Dichter writes history in the scale of 1:1. The reader becomes a virtual participant in the sessions of the IOC and of NATO’s Committee of Political Advisors.

East Germany, or GDR, German Democratic Republic, earned the nation’s first Olympic gold in Grenoble in 1968 through the efforts of Klaus-Michael Bonsack (left) and Thomas Köhler in Men’s doubles in Luge. (Source: Wikipedia)

It is obvious that each contender for hosting the Winter Olympics in 1968 viewed the choice of itself as a boost to its reputation as a major tourist resort. In the final round it was a contest between the NATO state cities Grenoble, Calgary and Oslo. The respective national governments became directly involved because of the GDR/Visa problem. In the final round of the selection the French city Grenoble was finally accepted by IOC President Avery Brundage because French President Georges Pompidou confirmed that France would grant entry visas to “the athletes admitted to the Games under the conditions existing in the regulations of the International Olympic Committee”. The decisive point was that the IOC and not NATO’s Committee of Political Advisors would have the last word. There would be no restrictions for East German athletes. Dichter notes that this victory of the IOC over NATO must be considered in light of France’s simultaneous military withdrawal from NATO.

Heather Dichter shows that the soft power of sport is great in contrast to activities in other fields. She has an enlightening example when comparing the visa requirements for travelers from the GDR to NATO countries. The author highlights the importance of banal nationalism in international relations, of the fact that national symbols are paramount in sport. It must be noted that this is a historical irony, because Baron de Coubertin did not envisage the Olympics as a contest of nation states. Dichter shows how sport is different from other fields when she reports about a French proposal in 1963 to the Committee of Political Advisors that it must relax the travel ban in the categories of science and sport for East Germans planning to participate in the European rowing championships and in three scientific conferences:

as long as they applied as part of all-German delegations and no flags, emblems, or anthems from East Germany would appear at the events. (Presumably the latter provision only referenced the rowing event and did not apply to electrotechnicians, geophysicists or crystallographers.) (p. 108)

In the competition for hosting the 1968 Olympics, the “German question” was the main stumbling block. Until the 1968 Olympics, athletes from the FRG and from the GDR were members of a common team under a German tricolor with the five Olympic rings. This rule was cancelled in the session of the IOC in Madrid in 1965, which allowed the GDR to participate with its own national team. In the Olympics in 1968 the GDR and the FRG thus participated with separate national teams. A year later, the FRG abandoned the Hallstein doctrine and inaugurated its new Ostpolitk under the new Foreign Minister Willy Brandt. Heather Dichter underlines that the non-governmental sport organization IOC really accomplished a major change in international policies. Albeit with decisive support from France, it was the IOC which “granted East Germany the recognition it had long desired” (p. 174).

Certainly, the quest for the 1968 Olympics demonstrated that sport is politics by other means. However, the really thought-provoking insight to be gained from Heather Dichter’s meticulous study of the competition for the Winter Games in 1968 is that sport is politics in its own right. Dichter manages to make clear that sport isn’t a sideshow but an essential dimension of international relations.

Copyright @ Kristian Gerner 2023

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