The modern Olympics started in 1896 and so far, since then have been held only twice in non-democratic countries:
1904- St. Louis
1932- Los Angeles
1968- Mexico City
1984- Los Angeles
Now you could argue about Seoul in South Korea in 1988 could count as it had only had had democratic elections restored in 1987. To some extent this shows the power of the Olympics. In 1980 the USA and some British teams boycotted the Moscow Olympics over the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan the previous year at the height of the so-called Second Cold War. The USSR at the time was clearly a one-party dictatorship, but of course the Olympics are planned well in advance as you can see from the list regarding London and back in the mid-1970s when the location had been established it had seemed that the Cold War had been thawing with detente and Ostpolitik. The other, probably more (in)famous Olympics were those held in Berlin in 1936 at the height of the Nazi regime. These had been allocated to Germany in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. Adolf Hitler attended the games but was humiliated by the success of the Black US athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals seemingly disproving Hitler's beliefs in the superiority of Whites. Hitler left so that he did not have to present the medals to Owens. The Olympics for both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were about showing the best of the country to the democratic media and trying to demonstrate that they were people that could be done business with despite all the human rights abuses going on behind the scenes. China is using them in the same way. Hitler released a number of political prisoners before the games, only to have them re-arrested afterwards. China, as I have noted, is busily doing the opposite, seemingly fearful that dissidents will have freer access to outside media during the Olympic period.
The reaction of democratic countries to the Olympics hosted by dictatorships has varied. In 1936 whilst there were no national boycotts of the Olympics though Barcelona hosted the so-called People’s Olympic Games (Olimpiada Popular) in July 1936, the week before the official one in Berlin, and 22 nations signed up to it. It particularly attracted competitors from workers' sports clubs which were common at the time. The Spanish Government was a centre-left Popular Front and wanted to provide an alternative to the games in Berlin which were emblazoned with Nazi insignia. Unfortunately the coup which triggered the Spanish Civil War broke out before all the competitors had arrived and these alternative games had to be abandoned.
In 1980 the USA still under Jimmy Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics in protest at the invasion of Afghanistan. Argentina, Canada, Chile, China, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Norway, South Korea, West Germany and many others barred their athletes from attending. The UK, France and Greece supported the boycott but allowed their athletes to make up their own minds and most from the UK went (though notably none of the horse jumpers); four athletes from New Zealand defied their country's boycott to attend. There were the so-called Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia. For the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics there was rather a tit-for-tat reaction and the USSR and 14 Communist states bar Romania which was pursuing an independent line, did not attend. The Soviets blamed anti-Soviet propaganda in the USA, which had actually been very prevalent in the previous three years since Ronald Reagan had come to power in 1981 and started talking about the 'evil empire'. The Soviets put on the so-called Friendship Games in Moscow. Since these tense days of the late Cold War things have settled down.
Political issues have not been confined to tension between states. The one incident that the media is currently pointing to is the Black Power salute given by US sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. They wore black gloves and black socks rather than shoes to reference Black poverty in the USA. This was at a time of sharp battles in US society over civil rights for Blacks. In 1972 at the Munich Olympics, the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Black September shot dead eleven members of the Israeli team and one West German police officer. There intention had been to draw the world's attention to the Palestinian situation in Israel and surrounding countries.
Boycotting of sports activities in apartheid South Africa began in 1956 and stepped up from 1963 onwards as more sports bodies came on board. South Africa was barred from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and thrown out of the IOC the Olympic organising body in 1970. Some bodies took more persuading, but there was an increase in the face of public protests through the 1970s, of those sports cutting ties to South Africa. These boycotts were not lifted until the disassembling of the apartheid system in 1991. Thus, despite people constantly saying that sport and politics should be separate in fact they often inter-mingle.
So, what is the response to China. It has not actually invaded anywhere since 1979 invasion of Vietnam. The Chinese have, however, occupied Tibet since 1951 and surely this is as worthy of protest as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country they left in 1989 whereas China remains in Tibet. The number of Chinese political prisoners is uncertain but over 800,000 people were arrested in 2004 alone for crimes that threatened the state. It is likely that millions of people in the country are held for what are called 'crimes of conscience', some on religious grounds, others for political reasons including pro-democracy and pro-human rights protests. China has over 700 prisons and other prisoners are detained, as they used to be in the USSR in psychiatric institutions. Torture and the death penalty are commonly used in China. As we know from Tianamen Square in 1989, the Chinese government will suppress pro-democracy movements brutally. We only hear about a fraction of protests in China and it is estimated there were over 10,000 local protests in China last year, not all aimed at political change, but at altering economic and environmental aspects too. So why is not the USA boycotting the 2008 Olympics? Why have British athletes had to sign a document saying they will make no comments on China's human rights record? South Africa in the 1970s and the USSR in the 1980s were weak economically whereas China is rapidly becoming the dominant economy in the world. Germany in 1936 was seen as strong and a bastion against the threat of Communism, so like China today, it was fine to go there. Attending the Olympics in China gives credibility to the dictatorship which persecutes millions of its people. Ordinary people will think, 'well if all those athletes are going it must be an alright country'. This is what China wants.
So, you can conclude, yes the Olympics and politics have nothing to do with each other, what it is about is the Olympics and money, as money and trade deals suppress any qualms about the kind of society that generates them. Come on athletes, recognise that China's policies are an anathema to the Olympic spirit: there is no equality for ethnic groups there and there is no opprtunity for any athlete to succeed who does not bow down before the will of the Chinese Communist Party. Boycott Beijing 2008.