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Remember Tibet, but let the Games go ahead

March 19, 2008

The Montreal Gazette - EDITORIAL
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

In July 2001, when the 2008 Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing,
China's ambassador to Canada claimed that the decision was in part
"recognition of the progress China has made in the field of human rights."

Hosting the games, Mei Ping added, "will give us impetus to speed up the
ongoing reform process" on rights and in other fields. All over the
world, China's diplomats and apologists echoed the same bland reassurances.

But now we're only five months from the games, and there's nothing bland
or reassuring about the news from Lhasa, Tibet.

There isn't much news getting out through official channels. China's
people see only what the government wants them to see, and so YouTube
suddenly became unavailable in China after videos of bloodshed in Lhasa
went up there. But there was widespread reporting in China of the claim,
by the head of Tibet's puppet government, that security forces "did not
carry or use any lethal weapons."

The rest of the world knows better, because these days Buddhist monks,
too, have camera phones and satellite phones and so on. The word is out:
At least 80 Tibetans are dead and many more have been injured as Chinese
troops put down demonstrations against the Chinese who are inexorably
taking over Tibet. As unrest spread to western Chinese cities with large
Tibetan communities, authorities warned of severe consequences.

This fits the pattern of pre-Games crackdowns, all over China, against
the few brave Chinese who have emerged as "dissidents." There have even
been reports of abuses of labourers preparing the Olympic Games sites.
So much for improved human rights.

The International Olympic Committee awarded China the games, back in
2001, on the basis of its own inscrutable politics (and, some say, the
eagerness of big sponsor companies to get into the Chinese market).
During formal presentations from would-be host cities, not one IOC
member asked the Chinese delegation anything about human rights. At
least the IOC felt compelled to justify the decision in terms of human
rights. The argument seemed transparent: "If we vote in favour (of
China), we have the opportunity to criticize," said Ottavio Cinquanta,
an IOC member from Italy. "If you want to protect human rights you
should vote for Beijing. Because this way all the focus is on them for
seven years."

Now, we need hardly say, the IOC has remained mute about what's
happening in Tibet. Nor has it exactly hectored China about rights in
the years since 2001. And the European Union said the Games should go on
this summer with no boycott, an interesting pronouncement given that no
government has yet threatened to boycott the Beijing Games, and that IOC
President Jacques Rogge says no boycott is envisaged.

Some top athletes, however, have expressed reluctance to compete in
China. IOC vice-president Thomas Bach replied, rather opaquely, that
showing up in Beijing would be a symbol to the world. Perhaps he meant a
symbol of IOC profitability for advertisers; he couldn't possibly mean
that it would be a symbol of the world's disgust at China's totalitarian

There has arisen in recent decades a notion of the Olympics as some sort
of global secular sacrament, "too important" to be sullied with mere
politics. This is self-serving claptrap. As historian David Bercuson
(among others) has noted, the father of modern Olympics, Pierre de
Coubertin, started the movement in 1896 "to counter German emphasis on
state-sponsored sport by encouraging the national rejuvenation of
amateur sport in France." Politics, not sport, is the common coin of
international relations.

China's foreign minister played the semi-mystical card last week, as
people around the world reacted in dismay to the news from Lhasa. "I
don't believe that the international community wants to politicize the
Beijing Olympics," said Yang Jiechi. Others in authority in China
expressed dismay that the Tibetan protests seem to have been timed to
embarrass China as the Olympics draw near. How unfair of the Tibetans,
after all we've done for them!

The whole Olympic process is riddled with such hypocrisy, not to mention
greed and drugs. But it's the only game in town, and so we do not call
for Canada or other countries to boycott the Beijing Games. As we saw
with the 1976, 1980, and 1984 Games, boycotts do not stop the Games.
Boycotts can even harden positions. And a boycott would fall most
heavily on athletes, in Canada and other countries, who have built their
careers, not to say their lives, around these Games.

But it would also be wrong to turn a blind eye to Chinese contempt for
human rights. What should happen is that heads of state and government
who do take human rights seriously should stay away from Beijing.

Some wonder, these days, if U.S. President George W. Bush can be
included in that group. He has accepted an invitation to Beijing, as
have about 100 other leaders of countries big and small. They should
reverse themselves. Stephen Harper, who met the Dalai Lama last October,
is not in that group and is unlikely to join it. Good for him.

Other measures, too, can be taken. Canada and other countries should
reduce their official delegations to the bare minimum needed to support
the athletes. The IOC should avoid awarding future Games to any more
states so callous about individual rights.

Finally, we invite athletes to remember that standing on a medal podium,
with the world watching you, would be a fine time to shout out a word of
support for the people of Tibet, or of opposition to the iron fist of
totalitarianism wherever it is raised.
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