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The I.O.C.’s Five-Ring Circus

April 11, 2008

The New York Times
April 10, 2008

The turmoil in the streets of San Francisco on Wednesday — ominous
dark-clad SWAT team members protecting single runners carrying the
Olympic torch through a gantlet of protesters — has been coming for a
long time.

It began on that July day in 2001 when the International Olympic
Committee voted to make Beijing the host of the 2008 Summer Games. In
those simpler hours before 9/11, that vote seemed like an idealistic
notion, acknowledging the economic progress of China, hands across the sea.

“The I.O.C. must have been clueless not to see this coming, to put
everyone in this position,” Lhadon Tethong, the executive director of
the Students for a Free Tibet, said in a telephone interview Wednesday
from San Francisco, where surging crowds of protesters forced the torch
relay to be drastically truncated, lest something worse happen.

The protesters were mainly concerned with Chinese repression in Tibet,
but there are many other protests over China. Unable to find
satisfaction through governments, elected or otherwise, the protesters
have gone after China through one of the easiest targets in the world —
a runner in shorts, jogging through a major city, carrying a torch.

Asked what the immediate goal was for the protest in San Francisco,
Tethong, herself a Tibetan exile who grew up in Canada, replied: “The
chaos you see in the street. The message is out.”

The flame was briefly extinguished in Paris, hidden under tight security
in San Francisco. The I.O.C. should probably cancel the relay procession
scheduled for Buenos Aires on Friday and continuing through Ho Chi Minh
City, Vietnam, on April 29 before reaching China.

The I.O.C. could curtail this artificial pageant, which has no roots in
ancient Greece, the home of the Olympic movement, but began with the
celebration of Aryan pride before the Berlin Games of 1936.

Any shortening of the torch relay would be a tremendous loss of face for
the host nation, but also for the I.O.C., which committed to the Summer
Games in China when it should have known the furies would pursue China
in countries where furies are allowed to demonstrate in the street.

“We could not have held these speeches in Tiananmen Square,” Charlie
Altekruse, a former Olympian, said Wednesday, referring to the murderous
suppression of protest in Beijing’s main square in 1989.

Altekruse was a rower in 1980 when he and 466 other American Olympians
were told they had to miss the Summer Games in Moscow — “the dismal and
failed boycott,” he still calls it.

Differentiating between protest and boycott, Altekruse, a resident of
Berkeley, Calif., fully supported Wednesday’s demonstrations, which he
missed because of business elsewhere. He speaks glowingly of the Tibetan
Buddhist culture, having been introduced to it by his wife, Barbara
Banks, who helped make a documentary called “Tibet in Exile.”

Millions of people around the world are critical of China for its
control of Tibet and Xinjiang as well as its identification with the
tribal murders in Darfur. But should the Olympics pay the price for
widespread governmental aggression and diplomatic failures? Should
people who enjoy free speech put on their sneakers from China, their
T-shirts and jeans from China, their ball caps from China, their
sunglasses from China, in order to disrupt a runner carrying a torch
through a free city?

The Olympics are an obvious target for protests, given the bigoted and
nationalistic facades of Olympics past — the white male leadership for
so many decades, the kowtowing to Hitler in 1936, the recent taint of
financial favor from potential host cities, including Atlanta and Salt
Lake City.

One could make the point that the Olympics are nothing more than
overrated television filler during the dog days of August, with
admirable athletes performing rarely seen sports, with a flair of human
interest. (Let’s face it, the World Cup of soccer is the world’s
greatest sports event.) However, because of the reverential tone of
broadcasters, acting as if they are presenting a sacred ritual, the
Olympics have retained their heavy cachet around the world — just
important enough for the Olympics to catch hell when they send torch
runners out in the street.

At least, it may be time to call off the relay with its roots in Nazi
Germany. Until further notice, it’s too much of a target. However, the
Students for a Free Tibet are also officially calling for a boycott of
the opening ceremony — “for now,” Tethong said Wednesday.

Boycotts are where Altekruse came in. In 1980, he was forced by
President Carter to take the hit for diplomatic impotence. He was young
and assumed he’d be back one day, but an illness kept him from
qualifying in 1984. He finally reached the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul,
South Korea.

“I’m not for boycotts foisted upon us by governments,” Altekruse said
Wednesday. He admired the protest banners hung from the Golden Gate
Bridge by Tibetan sympathizers, virtually an Olympic accomplishment of
their own. On Wednesday, pro-Tibet protesters and Chinese-American
citizens who want to see China have its full Olympic moment faced one

“The Chinese government put the torchbearers in the middle,” Tethong said.

For this ritual that began in 1936, any tidy balance between protest and
disorder may no longer be possible.
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