Mark Steel: Who dares mix politics and sport?

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The Independent Online

With only a few weeks to go, it is almost illegal to not be excited about the Olympics. By the middle of June, local councils will order us all to meet in our local park at 6.30 each morning and say communally, "Oooh, it's only a month to the opening ceremony" and recite the competitors in the first heat of the 200-metres backstroke.

Because the Olympics is a celebration of humanity, which is why there's mass derision for anyone who wants to introduce politics or protest. The Olympic Games is simply about sport. That must be why Coca-Cola has spent a $100m in sponsorship, because it loves badminton.

Every tiny aspect of this Olympics is sponsored. The women tennis players have been told to grunt the names of sponsors, so Sharapova will lose the point unless she screams "General Electric" with every serve. And the gymnasts will have to spell "Dow Chemical" with that twirly ribbon. Bakers in East London can't sell buns with Olympic rings on, as the logo is franchised. And as the Olympic spirit is about endeavour, anyone seen to be trying at anything during the Games could be sued.

This is why it was so inspiring to be at an event this week celebrating true Olympic spirit, at which 800 people heard a speech by the 200m runner John Carlos. Because his most celebrated act was not to win a medal in Mexico in 1968, but to stand on the podium with fellow medallist Tommie Smith and raise a fist in support of the US civil rights movement.

Carlos and Smith became targets of mass hatred for bringing politics into the Olympics. Soon, presumably, US competitors who win medals will be disciplined for standing on the podium singing the song that ends "the land of the free and the home of the brave", which could be interpreted as political. In future, maybe all medal winners will have to be genuinely neutral and sing, "Last night I heard my mama singing a song, ooh-eeh, chirpy chirpy cheep cheep".

More impressive than his original protest, Carlos is still campaigning, which is why there was an atmosphere of such determination and humanity. In fact it contained all the elements of the Olympic spirit. So the IOC shouldn't oppose protests, but embrace them and include them in the Games, with a commentator shrieking: "The French have dominated this event for so long, but the Greeks have been looking exceptional in training this year, so what a contest it should turn out to be."