As Red Smith, the great sports columnist, wrote at the time, “In the opening ceremonies, the big U.S.S.R. team followed the big U.S.A. delegation into the Stadium and the two groups lined up side by side on the infield. Pretty soon they broke ranks and mingled, indistinguishable in their white jackets except for a trace of tattletale gray in the Soviet uniform. American women took off their shoes and wiggled their toes in the grass. Men swapped lapel badges for souvenirs. American women traded white gloves for the Soviets’ red breast-pocket handkerchiefs. Who could have known there was a microfilm in every glove?”
Yet seven countries had boycotted the Melbourne games: Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands, to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary; and Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, to protest Israel’s invasion of the Sinai and the Gaza Strip.
Background to the 1956 Arab Boycott
By 1956, Egypt ’s Gamal Abd el Nasser had been in power four years. Initially friendly toward Western interests (Nasser had had agreed to secret talks with Israel over border issues), Nasser grew gradually more belligerent as he became the leading voice of Arab nationalism.
He recognized Communist China, signed a major arms deal with the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia in 1955, supported Algerian nationalists in their struggle for independence from France, and declared himself opposed to a western alliance with Middle Eastern nations. He also continued the blockade of the Israeli seaport of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba, began by his predecessor in 1951.
On July 26, 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal Company . He was retaliating against America’s broken promise over financing the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile, a project valued at $1.3 billion at the time. The Eisenhower administration had agreed to front Egypt $70 million in start-up costs and approved a World Bank loan of $200 million. But when Egypt signed the arms deal with the Soviets, Eisenhower backed out.
Nasser figured he’d make up the lost money by nationalizing the Suez Canal and using the profits for dam construction. “This money is ours and the Suez Canal belongs to us,” he said. “The Suez Canal was built by Egyptians, and 120,000 Egyptians died building it. Thus, we shall build the High Dam our own way.”
The Second Arab-Israeli War
What Nasser got was war. France and Britain mobilized, drafted the Israelis on their side, and in October 1956, helped Israel invade and occupy most of Egypt’s Sinai and all of the Gaza Strip in a matter of days. Dwight Eisenhower intervened, pressured the French and British to withdraw, and with the world on the brink of another world war (the Soviet Union having made its own noises), won a cease-fire.
Little Support from Arab Nations Besides Boycott
Even though Nasser in 1956 was regarded as a hero by most in Arab streets, Arab leaders did not come to his aid in his war against France, Britain and Israel. The most they did on the international stage was boycott the Melbourne games.
Lebanon, which barely had an army to speak of and traditionally sent minute delegations to the Olympics, usually in weightlifting, showed solidarity the only way it could.
On Nov. 10, 1956, Lebanon’s Olympic Committee announced that it would boycott the Melbourne game by saying: “Sportsmen in Lebanon appreciate the efforts of Egyptian sportsmen and extend their wishes to Egypt for its final successes in the present crisis.”
With the exception of Afghanistan, which has been an Olympic participant since 1936 , along with Iran, Israel, Pakistan and Turkey, no other Arab, Middle Eastern or North African countries had ready delegations to participate in the Olympics.