winning press freedom
What I Learned About Press Freedom at the Olympic Games
By Henrikas Yushkiavitshus
Even though the IOC claims that the Olympic Games are not political
events, they do usually have political connotations. My first Olympic Games
were Mexico in 1968. Already, during the year leading up to those Games, I
discovered that some broadcasters were more welcome to the Olympic venue
I was then the Director of the Technical Center of the International
Radio and Television Organization in Prague and needed to go to Mexico to
sign an agreement with the Mexican Organizing Committee for Intervision, the
international TV organization of the Warsaw pact countries, on broadcasting
of the Games to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
I was told at the Mexican Embassy in Prague that with a Soviet Diplomatic
passport, it would take six month to get a visa, and then only after giving
The signing ceremony together with Eurovision was scheduled for a week
later. So I answered that there was no need for fingerprints and called
Henry Haar, the Secretary-General of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)
in Geneva, asking him to sign the agreement also on behalf of Intervision. I
said I would mail him the necessary powers of attorney.
To my astonishment, the next day, an employee of the Mexican Embassy
turned up at my office with my visa and no further reference to
That was the result of a most impressive lesson in professional
solidarity. I found out later that the President of EBU and Director-General
of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green, had telegrammed the Mexican Organizing Committee
informing them that if within 24 hours Mr. Yushkiavitshus did not get his
visa, the Eurovision delegation would not go to Mexico either, meaning that
nobody in Europe would see the Mexico Olympic Games.
The good cooperation between Eurovision and Intervision, lasted for many
years, despite the Cold War.
In Mexico, things were not going smoothly either. A week before the Olympic
Games, more than 200 demonstrators were killed by the police, and ABC did
not know, until the very last moment, if it could cover the Games or not.
And during the Games, two American sportsmen were punished for giving the
Black Power salute at an award ceremony.
The Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, who won four gold and two silver
medals, would turn her back on the Soviet flag during the award ceremony in
protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. She
was given a very difficult life after her return home.
The tragedy of the Munich Olympic Games is well known. There were also
political overtones before the Olympics. I was negotiating the license fee
and technical facilities for Intervision. We had only $300,000 to pay for
everything. Even though the dollar was then much stronger than today, it was
still very little money, compared, for example to the $10 million that
Eurovision was paying.
West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt was promoting his policy of
“Opening to the East,” and I told my German colleagues that if they wanted
to change the image of Munich in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from
that of the city of Hitler in beer halls to that of an Olympic city, it was
they who should be paying us to promote that new image, not we who should be
My German colleagues were thunderstruck by those arguments, and we
settled on a price of $300,000. And the cooperation we got from the German
side was excellent.
Twenty-six nations boycotted the Montreal Olympic Games after New
Zealand, whose national rugby team had recently played in South Africa, was
allowed to compete even though the Apartheid regime of South Africa had been
banned from the Olympics since 1964. Another small incident: a Soviet diver
fell in love with an American girl and did not return to the Olympic
village. Excited Soviet officials came to me and asked that I get the
Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to air an appeal from the diver’s mother. We had
very good cooperation with CBC and the appeal was broadcast, but the
lovestruck Soviet diver returned to Russia much later.
I got my white hair from the Moscow Olympic Games of 1980. I was then the
Vice Chairman of the Soviet State Television and Radio Committee,
Gostelradio, and was given responsibility for the media coverage of the
Olympic Games. I was made responsible for everything -- the construction of
a new Olympic TV center, the development and production of color TV and
radio equipment (we could not buy it because of the embargo over
Afghanistan), and reaching agreements with foreign companies on the world
coverage of the Games. It was a project for more than $1 billion.
Let’s focus, however, on the issue of freedom of the press before and
during the Olympics. In Moscow, we could not use foreign producers and
cameramen, but we tried to train our people and, to that end, we organized
many meetings and seminars for our staff, inviting foreign television
journalists and producers.
It was not easy to persuade the Soviet authorities to issue the necessary
visas without delays. Once I was told that an Israeli journalist, Alex
Gilady was categorically denied a visa. I called the Foreign Office and they
told me that it was not them but the KGB who denied the visa. I called the
KGB General Ivan Pavlovich Abramov who was responsible for journalist visas.
The general told me that there was no question of giving a visa to Alex
Gilady because he was from Mossad, the Israeli secret service. I replied
that if Gilady was indeed from Mossad, he should be their target and they,
the KGB, should invite him to dinner and pour vodka into him. But if he was
not, then it was our business. If Gilady was denied a visa, I said I would
have to resign, and I told the KGB general my Mexican visa story.
Alex Gilady got his visa. Today, he is a member of the International
Olympic Committee. The biggest headache was the boycott of the Moscow
Olympics because of the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. It was
a disaster both for the sportsmen and for world television. We had prepared,
for example, excellent technical facilities for NBC. It had paid us $87
million but never got to use them.
Sixty teams boycotted the Moscow Games. Of the Western countries, only
Britain, France, Italy and Sweden participated. When some American athletes
challenged their President’s decision, Jimmy Carter threatened to cancel the
passports of any of them who went to the Games.
NBC did have some regular news staff in Moscow but the US rules meant
they could only broadcast general news, not sports events. During the
preparation of the technical facilities that NBC wound up not being allowed
to use, the staffs of Soviet television and of NBC had in fact developed not
only close cooperation but real friendship.
During the Olympic Games, there were some problems with the Soviet
security people. In the TV centre, they set the metal detectors to such a
high degree of sensitivity that an alarm would go off even if somebody had
one metal tooth. The first three days, this resulted in endless queues
trying to enter the TV Centre.
Just an hour before the Opening Ceremony, the Head of the Eurovision team
called me saying that security would let only one person per media outlet in
as a sports commentator, even if the plans called for three.
The situation improved only after I threatened the Minister of Interior
that the Eurovision commentators would not cover the Opening Ceremony and he
would have to explain to the world audience why that was.
There was no censorship. It was technically impossible anyway because
foreign broadcasters could produce programs themselves and go directly on
the air from their studios in Moscow, and also from Estonia, where the
sailing events took place.
The boycott of the Olympic Games in Moscow had a negative impact on the
Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The Soviets decided to boycott the L.A. Games.
I participated in the meeting of the Soviet Olympic Committee when that was
decided. Vitaly Smirnow, a member of the IOC, and I voted against the
boycott, but the Soviet press reported that the decision was unanimous.
The Central Committee of the Communist Party explained that it was not
revenge for the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games but that emigrant groups
in Los Angeles threatened terrorist attacks against Soviet sportsmen. There
were indeed letters with such threats, but I’m not sure that they were not
“arranged for” from Moscow. As a member of the IOC Television Committee, I
had visited Los Angeles and had met with the local security services. They
were well prepared to protect the Soviet team.
Of course, there were fools on both sides. One Los Angeles newspaper
published an article saying that most Soviet sportsmen were KGB agents. Some
real KGB officers used that assertion as an added argument to justify the
boycott of the L.A. Olympics.
I suggested that it would be very easy to solve the problem: The young
gymnasts upon landing at L.A. airport could leave the airplane with the
slogan on their Olympic uniforms -- “I am a KGB agent.” My humor was not
I will not talk about other Olympic Games. Let me just mention Seoul as
an example that the Olympic Games can promote the opening of a country to
the outside world.
Since the protests have erupted in Tibet on 10 March, Chinese authorities
have attempted to prevent information about that development from reaching
both domestic and international audiences. Journalists have either been
expelled from or denied access to regions where protests happened.
There have been statements by public figures calling for a boycott of the
If you really want human rights and press freedom in a given country
where in your opinion there are problems, do not remember to call for rights
and freedoms just before Olympic Games, but fight for them every day, as so
many journalists in China and elsewhere have been doing for years. Some of
them like Burmese journalist U Win Tin have been in jail for many years,
losing their health in the process, but politicians in the world outside
have been silent about it.
Very often today, human rights and press freedom is much less important
to politicians than selling Boeings, Airbuses or MIGs.
In my opinion every Olympics is a chance to reinforce press freedom and
human rights in the
country where the Games take place, but calls for boycotts of the Olympic
Games are cheap
ways to seek publicity at the cost of the sportsmen.
Media professionals of the host country are caught in a bind -- under
pressure from their own government and politicians on one side, and from the
world press, their colleagues, on the other. Clever cooperation between host
media and visiting media seems to me to be the most productive way around
The host country media must have enough courage to explain to their
politicians that the only way to counteract any negative publicity resulting
from press freedom is to give media more freedom. An atmosphere of real
freedom is in and of itself good publicity.