Small groups will use the intense media focus to draw attention to their cause, this can be in the form of organised non-violent protests. The key in handling these situations is to maintain order amongst civilians whilst still maintaining a good public image. In the case of the Mexico City games, the protests were ill-managed by the Mexican government, resulting in riots and the death of civilians.

Case study - Mexico City 1968

In 1968 there was a large amount of political unrest, particularly amongst students. Recent events had included the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, as well as civil unrest due to the Civil rights movement in the US, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union.

During the summer before the games were held, there were a number organised student protests. Initially these were aimed against the US invasion and subsequent occupation of the Dominican Republic three years earlier. The Mexican president Diaz Ortaz was extremely concerned about his country's political image, especially with the coming games. He therefore undertook strict control and policing of the student protests, which were growing larger by the day. In order to suppress the escalating riots, the Army and military presence was stepped up, leading to the occupation of the National Polytechnic Institute (NPI) in Mexico City. Few attempts were made to negotiate with student groups and the increasing military intervention only provoked more riots amongst students.

As the protests grew, they were also supported by Trade unions, such as the Railroad workers union. On October 2nd, 10 days before the games, police opened fire on a protest in the trios cultures square on Mexico City university campus. An estimated 300 students were killed in the resulting gunfire as well as hundreds of others injured.

After the massacre, the Government arrested approximately 2000 students, but most were released later that year. The government tried to justify its response by calling the student movement a “communist conspiracy”. There were calls for the games to be cancelled, but they eventually began on time.

This event had major consequences on the political impact of holding the games. The Mexican government were trying to control their public image; Mexico City was already the focus of other controversial aspects of the games, such as the implications on performance of holding it at high altitude. In this case, by trying to stifle and suppress the protests with military intervention, the protests escalated, becoming much more violent and destructive, this highlights the need for adequate assessment of the political environment of the host country.

In Mexico City the government could have managed the situation better by holding talks with the leaders of the student protests. This would have allowed better crowd control and would have saved lives.

Modern crowd control and planning will often involve talks with holders of non-violent protests so that people are able to express their opinion safely without causing any danger or letting the protest escalate out of control. When planning Olympic Games politicians should judge the publics reaction, also they should not use the games as a "political whitewash" to boost flagging tourism and increase their popularity with voters.

In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos held a protest against racism during the awards presentation. They were both members of the running team, with Tommie winning the gold medal in the 200m race. During the ceremony and the playing of the national anthem both runners bowed their heads and raised a fist in the airing the symbolic black power salute.

Black power salute

The protest was actually a compromise, the initial plan was for all the black athletes to boycott the Olympic Games altogether. Instead it was decided that the team would participate in the games as they felt the games provided a "unique platform" where they could stage a protest and receive large amounts of publicity.

Smith and Carlos were immediately removed from the American team and sent home after the ceremony. Although the initial reaction to the protest was negative, Smith and Carlos are seen as important figures in civil rights, not only did they bring the civil rights case to a greater global level, they also provided strong role models for athletes suffering from racism.

[ introduction | social | politics | economics | london 2012 ]