Boycotting New Zealand

In 1976 most African countries boycotted the Olympics because the games would not ban New Zealand.

Montréal Olympic Stadium
gueco8288, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This incident is funny to me because New Zealand has such an innocuous international reputation (its behaviour in the Pacific notwithstanding). But back in 1976, most African states boycotted the games because of New Zealand’s inclusion in the Olympics.

It was all because of apartheid-era South Africa. From the 1960s on, concerned people and countries had instituted a variety of international boycotts against South Africa. Their intent was to pressure the country to end its legal system of segregation and race-based discrimination. Some boycotts, like the 1965 British academic boycott, came from university professors. Others were cultural, economic, or political. But in the 1970s, some of the big boycotts centered on international sport.

Apartheid-era South Africa last competed in the Olympics in 1960; the International Olympic Committee excluded it from the 1964 games and officially expelled its national Olympic committee in 1970. In international events, other teams refused to play South Africa: India forfeited the 1974 Davis Cup, for example, when they refused to travel to the country. Sport tours to South Africa were cancelled or heavily protested.

By 1976, South Africa was a sporting pariah. In many sports, from athletics to chess, it could not engage in international competition. It was intensely controversial, then, when the New Zealand rugby team went on a tour to South Africa that year. The tour drew protests in New Zealand, but Prime Minister Rob Muldoon (the same guy who announced a snap election while drunk) allowed it to continue.

This rugby tour took place at the same time as the 1976 Montréal Olympics. A confederation of African states, led by the Republic of the Congo, demanded that New Zealand be barred from the games because of the South African rugby tour. The International Olympic Committee refused. So almost every competing African nation left. Congo, Egypt, Zaire, Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria… they all made a stand against South Africa’s policies of racism and division, and New Zealand’s complicity.

(End note: The South African rugby team toured New Zealand in 1981. The huge local protests that ensued are still seen today as a political and cultural touchstone of the country.)

[Thanks to Gareth E.]

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