Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will official open the 2014 Olympic Winter Games tonight at the Opening Ceremony – no surprise there as these Games have one man’s stamp on them, Putin, more so than any Olympics since Berlin in 1936.
Vladimir Putin is the current President of Russia, or the highest ranking official in the country. It is standard that Olympic Games are opened by the Head of State of the nation in which the Games are held, per IOC Protocol, although the IOC also contradicts itself by always stating that Games are awarded to cities and not countries. We’ll overlook that.
Since the Modern Olympic Games started in 1896 it has been rare that the nation’s Head of State did not open the Olympics. The United States has been famous for this, as in 1932 at Lake Placid and Los Angeles, 1960 at Squaw Valley, and 1980 at Lake Placid, the US President did not open the Games. In 1932 at Lake Placid it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at that time was only Governor of New York state. The Los Angeles 1932 Olympics were opened by Vice-President Charles Curtis, as President Herbert Hoover declined to travel to Los Angeles because of his preoccupation with the world-wide depression. In 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower did not go to Squaw Valley, with those Games opened by Vice-President Richard Nixon – another Olympics at least opened by a future US President.
And famously, at Lake Placid in 1980, President Jimmy Carter refused to open the Winter Olympics, as he was pressuring the IOC to boycott the Moscow Olympics, and sent Vice-President Walter Mondale in his stead. Mondale also opened the IOC Session in Lake Placid and angered the IOC by his political speech in which he called for a boycott of Moscow.
Finally, in 1984 at Los Angeles, President Ronald Reagan broke the US “tradition” of not sending the President to the Opening Ceremony. US Olympics have since been opened by Presidents Bill Clinton (1996 Atlanta) and George W. Bush (2002 Salt Lake City).
Other than the USA situations, there has been only one other time at which a Head of State did not open an Olympics, and it did occur at the Winter Olympics. That was at the first Winter Olympics, at Chamonix in 1924, which were opened by Gaston Vidal (1888-1949), the French Under-Secretary for Physical Education, rather than French President Alexandre Millerand or Prime Minister Raymond Poincaré. But those first “Winter Olympics” were a bit odd in themselves – more on that in the next blog post.