User:Jessica Perkins/The Olympic Games as a Political Driver and its Impacts on the Australian Sports System

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The Olympic Games as a Political Driver and the Impacts on the Australian Sport System [1].

Sport within Australia and around the world has experienced major changes in regards to development and organisation. These changes have transformed sport from recreation into what is now big business for all stakeholders in sport and also the economy. With this, sport is also being used as a political tool, particularly through major events, having both positive and negative impacts on the sporting community at all levels. This article explores how politics within the Olympic Games has impacted Australia and how it continues to shape and direct our sport system.


The sports system in Australia has been shaped by lesson learnt in the past in sport at all levels. These lessons have come from the shifting nature of sport and the historical events that have dictated the organisation and participation in sport and recreation. The Olympic Games provides an example of the ways in which sport has moved from recreation and competition onto a more business driven industry where money, power and politics play a major role. This article outlines the current system of sport in Australia and explores the politics that have been present in the history of the Olympic Games. The article also looks at the positive and negative impacts that Olympic politics have had on the sports system in Australia.

Sport as a Political Driver[edit]

The sporting business is a significant part of the Australian economy, providing employment for approximately 275,000 people and contributing to the gross domestic product through corporate sponsorships, sporting goods and services as well as exports. (Stewart et al 2004: 29). Once a recreational activity, carried out for leisure and enjoyment, Sport in Australia and around the world has seen major changes, particularly in the past century in relation to the way it is organised and the way it is viewed in a societal context. Modern sport can be seen as big business in terms of advertising and media, broadcasting rights and athlete salaries and contracts. Due to its changing nature, sport has become a political arena that needs recognising and managing in order to ensure the continued success of sport worldwide.

Politics within sport in general has the potential to have both positive and negative effects on sport as recreation and sport as business. Participation in sport whether direct or indirect can be largely influenced by the presence of business and politics in the sporting context, whether the issues are rising from outside the sporting arena or from within. Politics in sport at local, state and national levels is primarily based around the fact that the industry has become money-driven in most areas regarding organisation and personnel. Sport at an international level however, has been used by countries to express political opinions and messages.

The political history of the Olympic Games has seen gender and racial discrimination particularly in the early years of the modern Olympics, terrorism at the games held in Munich in 1972 and boycotting which has appeared often, largely during the 19th Century. These issues and events within the games has the potential to effect the sports systems of the countries involved, either directly or indirectly, and may dictate the future of sport in terms of organisation and participation.

The Australian Sports System[edit]

Sport not only plays a major role in Australia’s economy but has a strong presence in the Australian culture. Stewart et al. (2004, p.1) believes that sport followers in Australia find a personal and national identity through their sport experiences. ‘Sport has a passion, profile and influence unmatched throughout the world’(Dover, J 2011) . It is this passion and profile that has highlighted the need to have proactive and collaborating sports systems in place on a national and international scale. The national system of sport in Australia encourages and provides opportunities for everyone to participate in sport and supports talented athletes in reaching their potential. Sporting organisations at local, state and national level along with governing bodies and private organisations work together in making the Australian sporting system ‘unique and one of the most successful in the world’ (Australian Government, 2008).

Australian Government involvement in sport introduced the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) in 1984. The ASC was set up to provide funding, technology, programs and procedures to improve and assist in managing the sports system within Australia. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was developed in 1981 and is a primary division of the Sports Commission. ‘The AIS was dubbed the ‘gold medal factory’, indicating its primary function in the Australian sporting environment’ (Green 2007, p.926). These two organisations have played a major part in developing community sport as well as high performance athletes to represent Australia in both team and individual sports. The Australian Government have also been active in promoting sport at every level, from the provision of community grants to the large amounts of funding provided for major events such as the Olympic Games in Sydney 2000. In 2009 the government released a strategy for ‘improved opportunities for community participation in sport and excellence in high performance athletes’(Australian Government, 2009, p.353). One of the outcomes identified in the strategy was to focus on developing the sports system in Australia to support high performance and excellence in this area. The government’s aim was through the encouragement of participation in sport at grassroots level which would provide greater opportunities to produce and develop elite athletes in Australian sport.

Participation in sport at local levels is not only beneficial in terms of health and social wellbeing but is the starting block for achievement at higher levels. The 2011 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Overview identified that there were 11.1 million people participating in sport and recreation activities during 2009 and 2010. The ABS research also discovered that 1.7 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 participated in sport outside of school, with the most popular activities being soccer and swimming (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011). It is through this participation and the development systems put in place by governing bodies and private sporting organisations that supports sporting success at elite levels on a national and international scale.

The Olympic Games[edit]

Classic symbol of the Olympic Games. Image by Pierre de Coubertin

‘The Olympic Games, the world's most prestigious sporting event, has been held for over one hundred years with significant consequences for the host cities’ (Chalkley & Essex, 1999). These consequences have been positive in terms of economic benefits, improved infrastructure and international exposure. Some host cities have also experienced negative impacts in the form of terrorism and security fears. ‘From the outset, the Olympic games were conceived as an event that should be separate from political considerations’ (Pound, R. 2004, p. 88). Despite this envisagement, from the beginnings of the Olympics in Ancient Greece to the upcoming 2012 London Games, there has been a history of politics in the area of sport across many countries who share the same passion for the competition and comradery in sport. Pound (2004) states that the games were meant to be ‘contests between individuals coming from different countries, but not competitions between countries’ (p. 88). During the history of the Olympic Games many governments have used the event to deliver political messages in the form of organised boycotts which in most cases has overshadowed the sporting events themselves (Bayliss et al, 2004). Before the First World War there was no one trying to use the Olympic Games for political purposes (Pound, 2004), however, there were a number of events that could be viewed as boycotts, such as the lack of participation by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) because of their view the games were too conformable. It was the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936 that identified the beginning of what would be a history of boycotting in the Games. Before these games the sports community of a number of countries debated the decision on whether to participate due to the Nazi party and the knowledge of the persecution of Jewish people. The next two games were cancelled due to the Second World War and were then held in London in 1948. From this time Boycotts began to ‘become more fashionable’ (Pound, 2004, p.91).

The 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games was the event that is believed to have changed Australian Sport (Forrest, 2008). The invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR prompted the Australian Government, under the ruling of Fraser, to ask the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF) to boycott the games. Forest (2008) believes that this event caused a ‘division within Australian sport and within the individual sports themselves (p.227). The Munich Olympic Games in 1972, which saw the terrorist attack on the Israeli team, is perhaps the most documented political event in the history the games. More recently in 2010 we saw the media coverage around the security issues at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi and the terrorist fears that raised questions about athlete’s safety and participation. Australian athletes were not obliged to compete in the games if they had security fears and for those who did compete they were accompanied by Australian Federal Police and had bodyguards in the village. (Hurst and Packham 2009). These political events that have occurred within sport internationally have impacted sport on all levels and confirm that both business and politics are determining the way sport is regarded and organised in Australia and around the world.

Impacts of Politics on Sport[edit]

‘The history of politics and sport goes back beyond the modern Olympics of Pierre de Coubertin and it will continue to influence every Olympics, Soccer World Cup and local netball competition into the future’ (Dover, J 2011) Improvements in technology, increased funding, athlete and coaching contracts and sponsorship have played a part in the changing nature of sport and have introduced new politics that have, and will continue to play a role in the sporting arena.

When hosting or participating in a mega event such as the Olympic Games, there are many impacts, both positive and negative that may be experience by individuals, sporting communities or nations as a whole. ‘Australia has competed at every Olympics, one of only a handful of nations to do so’ (Haynes, 2001, p. 3). The participation of Australian in every games has meant that Olympic politics has had an impact on the Australian sports system in many ways. Positive impacts have included the recognition of the need for the Australian Sports Commission and Institute of Sport and consequential recognition of the importance of sport at grassroots level. On the other hand there have been negative outcomes for the sports system in Australia and these are to be seen as the division that occurred in Australian sport during and after the Moscow Olympic Games and the effects that it had on the careers of athletes pressured not to attend. These circumstances and events have made the Australian sports system what it is today and Olympic politics and politics in sport in general will continue to dictate sport in Australia in the future.


The political events that have occurred throughout the history of Olympic Games can be seen to have had consequences on the sports system in Australia. These consequences, both positive and negative, have influenced the way sport is organised at local, state and national levels and the way it is viewed in a societal context. Since the time when sport was simply a recreational activity, the nature of sport has developed and changed with modern society and technology. It is these changes that have seen money become a major part of the sporting industry through media, sponsorship and merchandise. Not only has sport become a big business but it is also seen as a podium where political messages can be communicated. This has raised the question of whether sport should be used in this manner or if international sporting events such as the Olympics should be promoting peace and unity and celebrating competitive success and the shared passion of sport.


  • Chalkley, B. & Essex, S. (1999) Urban development through hosting international events: a history of the Olympic Games, Planning Perspectives, 14 (4), 369-394.
  • Forrest, L., (2008) Boycott: Australia’s controversial road to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, ABC Books, Sydney NSW.
  • Green, M (2007) Olympic Glory or Grassroots Development?: Sport Policy Priorities in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, 1960–2006,’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol 24: 921-953
  • Pound, R. (2004) Inside the Olympics: A behind-the-scenes look at the politics, the scandals, and the glory of the games, Focus Strategic Communications Inc, Canada.
  • Stewart, B, Nicholson, M, Smith, A & Westerbeek, H 2004, Australian sport: Better by design? The evolution of Australian sport policy, London, Routlege.