U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stoop atop on the 1968 Olympic medal stand in Mexico City, heads bowed and black-gloved hands defiantly thrusted skyward. It remains a seminal Olympic moment, showing how the world's premiere athletic competition in an instant can be thrust into the political realm.
Olympic history is rife with political moments, with individual athletes and governments using the games to deliver their messages of protest and activism to a global audience. During the Cold War, Washington and Moscow took turns skipping games hosted on their rivals turf. Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete, dominated in Berlin in 1936, in front of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime.
And with the United Kingdom and Argentina again squabbling over the Falkland Islands, the upcoming London games could become another memorable political Olympic statement.
Asked if the British are worried about a statement from an Argentine athlete over the Falklands issue, a senior U.K. official says matter-of-factly "that's certainly a possibility."
The Argentine government already has used the coming London games in its Falklands campaign, raising the odds of a statement when the Olympics begin later this summer. A television ad that appeared on the islands featuring an Olympic athlete frowning at the British flag before his training regimen takes him to a memorial honoring dead WWI British soldiers. The ad, at one point, states: "To compete on English soil, we train Argentinian soil."
The senior British official calls the ad "inappropriate," and adds "the Olympics are not for political issues."
Political statements during the Olympics "absolutely do resonate with people, especially ones made in the mainstream sports," says Andy Pollin, an afternoon drive-time radio host on WTEM-980 AM in Washington, where he is considered an encyclopedic sports historian.
"There have been many years of discussion surrounding the Olympics, about whether it is sports or politics," Pollin says. "People wonder where it stands on that scale."
The Argentine government—as past administrations in Buenos Aries have done—is asserting a constitutional claim to the South Atlantic islands, which lie just off mainland Argentina. U.K. officials say London's claim to the islands dates to the late 1700s. The Falkland Islands government's website buds the islands "one of the United Kingdom's most dynamic and proactive Overseas Territories."
As the dispute simmers ahead of 2013 referendum on whether the islands will remain a British territory, wherever senior Argentine officials go lately around the globe, they find a way to talk about the Falklands issue. For instance, in a very public spat at the just-concluded G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron refused to accept documents from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner that reportedly stated Buenos Aires's claim to the Falklands.
Government officials and experts are adamant that the current bickering is unlikely to devolve into a repeat of 1982, when Argentina invaded the islands. The war that followed, eventually won by the U.K., left 649 Argentinians and 258 Britains dead, and nearly 2,000 from both sides wounded. It took nearly a decade for the two nations to restore diplomatic relations.
"Both sides are on the record as saying that is unimaginable," says one senior British official. "The Argentine government has said it wants to draw attention to this in a peaceful way. And they have been true to their word."
But the British official could not help but take a swipe at his Argentine counterparts, noting the South American nation's Falklands campaign has been "rife with inaccuracies."
London's goal is to counter Argentina's claims and "continue to do what we have been doing for the last 30 years: Continue to defend the island's right to determine its own future," the senior British official says. Make no mistake, the Brits are confident the Falkland citizens are quite happy with their status as part of Her Majesty's kingdom.
The senior official pointed to the last public opinion poll of Falklands voters, confidently stated "94.5 percent supported retaining British sovereignty." What's more, the official said London believes the referendum question will be whether or not to maintain the status quo.
Officials with the Argentinian Embassy in Washington did not return calls seeking comment.
Heather Conley, a former senior State Department official, say "there is a very low probability" of a repeat of the 1982 military skirmish because "there are pressing reasons for both nations to ensure it never enters that arena."
"Argentine governments make an issue of the Falklands typically when their economy goes south, as it has recently," says Conley. "As the economy deteriorates, the rhetoric rises."
Diplomatic talks between U.K. and Argentine officials is "not going to happen," Conley says. But one thing is inevitable, she says: "Argentina will use [the Olympics] to enliven international fora."
Any political grandstanding is unlikely to deter a politically minded Olympian, however. And, as Pollin notes, in today's world of mobile phone cameras, social media websites and video-sharing sites, such acts will go viral in an instant.
"It really doesn't matter when you do it because of YouTube," Pollin says. "Somebody is going to have a cell phone video of it. It's going to get out. And you won't have to do much detailed planning beforehand to get it out to the world."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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