When New Zealand's rugby team broke the international sports embargo on Apartheid South Africa, 28 African countries retaliated by sitting out the following summer's Olympic games.
Today, the Olympics are idealized as a sacrosanct, apolitical space, an opportunity for the nations of the world to come together free of their political or historical baggage. Even the tensest moments at the ongoing London games, such as the Lebanese judo team's sneering treatment of their Israeli counterparts, do little to disrupt the overall spirit. It's the conflict-transcending moments that demonstrate what the games are really capable of, such as when Georgia's Nino Salukvadze and Russia's Natalia Paderina embraced on the medal stand in 2008, even as their countries were at war. As The Atlantic's Ashley Fetters explained last week, when enemies face off at the Olympics -- even South and North Korea -- it's usually an intense but still fundamentally athletic affair. The Olympics, the thinking goes, offer a uniquely peaceful and mutually respectful meeting-place for the nations of the world, an inspiring demonstration of how a mere table tennis match can make even intractable, decades-long international crises seem petty or small. But it hasn't always been that way, and the Olympics were once a particularly bright flashpoint in one of the Cold War era's tensest geopolitical dramas.
In 1976, 28 African countries announced just days before the opening ceremony that they would boycott the summer games in Montreal. The boycotters said they refused to participate alongside New Zealand, whose national rugby team had embarked on a controversial tour of apartheid South Africa that summer, in defiance of an informal but widely observed international athletics embargo on the country.