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The Summer 2024 Paris Olympics as a Stage for Polarization

Zahra Shafiq




The Olympic Games are one of the most watched world stages. The logic behind why is simple: the Olympics connect the international community without including politics as the head-liner. So naturally many athletes use the opportunity of the Olympic stage to advocate for their beliefs and rights, politics and all.

The 2024 Paris Summer Olympic Games are going to occur in one of the most volatile Western countries in an arguably increasingly divided world. As bipartisanism and “two-sided” events dominate human history, revolution and protest continue to be the best avenue for people to have their voices and rights heard. Here we will discuss the possible avenues of protest and advocacy that may occur during the upcoming Olympics.

Typically, viewership of the Olympics usually garners patriotism among the unenthused. However, we are now entering another polarizing era post-Covid. The pandemic delayed the last Summer Games by a year, and the online prominence of the 2021 Games fostered a global community of socially-driven athletes and sports-enthusiasts. Despite the fact that during the 2012 London Games 4.8 billion people watched across all media platforms (Billings and Hardin 2013), the Olympics fell out of fashion in the late 2010s. At the upcoming 2024 Games, the international community will have regained its mobility to gather in person. But these past few turbulent years have emphasized civilian unrest globally. Human rights and governance alike are falling under fire from all continents. And in the historical Western world, no single country has a louder voice than France.


Why do the French have a reputation for public dissent?

We can trace French unrest back to the first French Revolution in 1789. To brief: from years of inequality and unfair states of living, the lowest class of the French hierarchy (the Third Estate) hoped to usurp the long-established monarchy (l’ancien régime). They succeeded at the cost of more than 20,000 civilian lives lost between 1789-1794. From then till 1870, the French governing body was knocked down and re-righted every decade due to more revolutions from the country’s oppressed peoples. This history of changing governance is indicative of two things.

First, this indicates a proactive and progressive citizenship. This progressiveness of society and citizen’s self-viewing is critical in France’s specialized political character. The countries that have since been liberated from French colonization recycled aspects of the French language and culture into their nationality. These people therefore recategorize themselves and adapt to their presiding governance, but without integrating aspects of leadership that they disapprove of.

Second, the volatile government indicates an inequitable state. If France is always changing its policy, that means no form of French governance thus far has been good enough for human equality. And to this, the French say: yes, that is true. Politically it is impossible to have a perfect democracy—the concept of a republic is based on the compromise, coordination, and sacrifice of the minority citizens to the majority. The political proactiveness of French citizens is reflected by the image of the guillotine: those creating injustice are to pay.


Why protest during the Olympics?

Using the Olympic stage for protest is not a novel concept. From the 1906 Athens Games, where Peter O’Conner redecorated a British flagpole with the flag of Ireland in protest to Great Britain’s occupation, to a discrete repost on TikTok during these past 2022 Beijing Games, protest has always been involved– especially on the podium. At the 2019 Lima Pan-American Games U.S. athlete Gwen Berry accepted her bronze medal facing away from the American flag. In the 1968 Games in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for Black Power while standing on the podium for Track events. These were not cost-free protests; Berry received a year-long probation from the Games and the BBC writes that Smith had to stop his athletic career although he was the highest performing athlete in ‘68. However, by the new 2021 edition of the Olympic Charter, the rules limiting publicity at the Games (called Rule 50) have loosened. Advertising is regulated, but opinion is not.

It is understandable that activists have historically approached the Olympics as an opportunity to share their opinions. The Olympics are composed of elite athletes, enjoyed by first world countries, and follow a Western canon. More and more people have been allowed to enter this elitist competition as ‘nations’ in the Games: in the 2016 Rio Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Refugee team registered. It had ten members who originally were from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who competed, “sending a message of hope and inclusion to millions of forcibly displaced people around the world.” (IOC website). Although most countries are averse to taking on refugees, the inclusion of this team shows the natural progression of advocacy within the Olympic system. People are more and more angry about inequality and oppression internationally. It only makes sense that the biggest international competition represents this doctrine.

Using the Olympic stage as a platform for protest is also highly controversial. However, following the logic of most modern revolutions, drastic action in the name of social justice is necessary to make small leaps forward. This does not mean that the Olympics are a perfect lexicon of free advocacy. The Games are supposed to be a truly global stage, but in reality, many countries are unrepresented and disqualified.


What could go down during Summer 2024?

Already Olympic related protests have started in Paris. Romain Philips reports that on October 17th, 2023, unregistered migrant workers in Paris striked to advocate for the relaxing of current French immigration law and for regular residence permits. Signs read, «Égaux, égales, personne n’est illégal»– “Equality, rights, no one is illegal.”

There is the possibility that those countries barred from participating make noise. Russian and Belarusian athletes have been called to be banned by 35 countries this past February according to Reuters. If the two end up in the Games, Ukraine plans to boycott. And its allies might have to do the same.

But the Russian-Ukrainian war is no longer the only militant conflict the Western world and media is focused on. The current Israeli genocide has given new life to Arab advocates, many of whose home countries participate in the Games. This anger will not die out by next summer, just as this pain is not a recent reality.

France’s relationship with the Middle East is already volatile after the government has been instituting various restrictive laws around religion, targeting Islamic practice specifically. In early September 2023, the students and teachers of many French schools went on strike in protest to an abaya and qami ban recently mandated.

And locally Paris also has its more than fair share of civil disputes. Le Monde reports that the government plans to relocate the Parisian homeless population to neighboring villages for the 2024 Games specifically. Many of these mayors refuse to build shelters, for economic, population, and quality of living based reasons. These people need to have a place to live; and as we get closer to the games more people will be uncomfortable with these choices made by Macron’s cabinet.

Individual athletes as well have no lack of social causes to rally for. The majority of Olympic demonstrations have been by individuals for their personal beliefs. The narrative in the U.S. has developed since 2016, where Colin Kapernick was shamed for taking a knee during the American Anthem: now athletes are encouraged to be seen as humans, complete with political identity, past their job to keep their heads down and play their games.


Work Citied

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Barajas, Joshua. "Sport is Political: How Athletes Are Keeping Human Rights Center Stage at the Olympics." PBS Newshour, August 4, 2021. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/sport-is-political-how-athletes-are-keeping-human-rights-center-stage-at-the-olympics.

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Philips, Romain. "No papers, no Olympic Games: Hundreds of unregistered migrant workers protest for regularization,. InfoMigrants. October 20, 2023. https://www.infomigrants.net/en/post/52720/no-papers-no-olympic-games-hundreds-of-unregistered-migrant-workers-protest-for-regularization.

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