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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Opinion: To change the Olympics, change the channel

August 6, 2008

Jonathan Zimmerman
The San Francisco Chronicle
August 4, 2008 B-7

I love everything about sports: playing them, viewing them and
writing about them. But when the Olympic Games start later this week
in Beijing, I'm not going to watch. And neither should you.

Call it the People's Boycott. Despite worldwide protests, every major
nation is sending its athletes to Beijing. That's all the more reason
for you and me to stage our own silent demonstration. If you want to
change the Olympics, change the channel.

Anything less will make you party to the cynical brutality of China's
leaders, who have broken nearly every promise they made when they
were awarded the Games in 2001. Although the government pledged to
allow journalists unfettered access to the Internet during the
Olympics, for example, censors have blocked Web sites such as Radio
Free Asia and Amnesty International. This is the same regime that
bankrolls Sudanese dictator Omar el-Bashir, who was recently indicted
for genocide and war crimes in Darfur. But China turns a deaf ear to
the international community, insisting that the Darfur crisis is an
"internal affair."

And that's the same line it uses with respect to Tibet, of course,
where China crushed a rebellion earlier this spring. Ditto for the
jailing of political dissidents and the muzzling of parents who lost
children during last May's earthquake. "Internal affairs," all.

If you really believe that, go ahead and watch the Olympics. But if
you think that people should have the same human rights, no matter
where they happen to live, then it's incumbent upon you to look away
when the Games come on. The People's Boycott will face objections, of
course. I can already predict five of them:

1. The Olympics shouldn't be "political." That's like saying
unmarried men shouldn't be bachelors. The Olympics have always been
political. They were political in 1936, when Adolf Hitler used the
Games to burnish his international standing; in 1968, when two
African American medal-winners raised their fists in a black power
salute; in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 Israeli
athletes; and in 1980, when 60 nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics
to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. One of those
nations was - you guessed it - the People's Republic of China.

2. Protesting the Olympics reflects "anti-Chinese" bigotry. No, it
doesn't. It's a critique of the Chinese government, not of its
citizenry. I have written hundreds of columns questioning the
American government's behavior, in Iraq and elsewhere, and but that
doesn't mean I'm "anti-American." So why does a demand for an Olympic
boycott make me "anti-Chinese"?

3. The United States commits its own human-rights abuses, in Iraq and
elsewhere. Like I said, I'm no friend of the war in Iraq. But I'm
also free to tell you that, in print and in person, without fear of
government goons harassing me or my family. Chinese dissidents aren't so lucky.

4. The People's Boycott will penalize hard-working athletes. That was
the best argument I have heard against a true Olympic boycott: if a
country withheld its athletes, their toil and preparation would go
for naught. Now that all of the nations are participating, however,
it's hard to see how turning off your television set will harm
Olympic competitors. They'll still get to play, but they'll also get
put on notice that lots of people object.

5. The People's Boycott won't make a difference. Maybe not this year.
But down the road, it will. After all, NBC bid nearly $900 million to
broadcast the Beijing Games. If its TV ratings suffer, you can bet
that the International Olympic Committee - which derives the bulk of
its revenue from broadcast fees - will think twice before awarding
the Games to another dictatorial government.

And remember: Whether you watch the Olympics or not, your children
will be watching you. One day, people will read about the Beijing
Games and ask how the world could possibly have played along. Your
kids will have a ready answer: We didn't. And they'll be proud of it, too.

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York
University, is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red
Schoolhouse in History and Memory," forthcoming from Yale University Press.
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