Join our Mailing List

"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Like it or not, China will play host to political games

August 11, 2008

Marina Hyde in Beijing
The Guardian (UK)
August 9, 2008

Sports competition and politics are separate, China insisted this
week, an impression faintly undermined by the presence of more than
80 heads of state at last night's opening ceremony, and the gathering
suspicion that Beijing 2008 is shaping up to be one of the most
political Games in modern Olympic history.

In the past few days alone, we have heard George W Bush - somewhat
miscast as the world's Jiminy Cricket - condemn the Chinese
government's human rights record in the strongest terms of his
presidency, just hours before Team USA revealed their flag-bearer
would be the track star Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese refugee. The
co-founder of Team Darfur, Joey Cheek, an Olympic gold medallist
himself, had his visa revoked, while the very air that hangs over the
Chinese capital seemed to have become a battle between
environmentalists and the meteoric rise of the Chinese economy.

At ground level, Free Tibet protesters have echoed the dissent that
dogged the Olympic flame's progress across the world before being
bundled away by police. During last night's spectacular the immediate
area surrounding the Olympic Park was eerily clear, the thousands of
sightseeing Beijing locals who had thronged it in recent days penned
back to a more manageable distance. These scenes lie out of shot of
the TV cameras for now, but the question of how long the images can
remain controlled looms larger by the hour.

Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who stood in solidarity as
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists that historic
night in Mexico in 1968, said before he died: "Once you've earned
that right to stand on that podium, you've got that square metre of
the world that belongs to you. What you do with it is up to you
within limits." This coming fortnight the world will discover where
China deems those limits to lie, as athletes consider whether to
flout the aggressively re-emphasised Section 51 of the Olympic
charter, which states that "no kind of demonstration or political,
religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites,
venues or other areas".

Even without overt protest, it might be difficult to say where the
sport ends and the politics begin. Already the rivalry between the
United States and China has an echo of Cold War days, when the medals
chase seemed cast as an extension of the arms race. So invested with
expectation is tomorrow's China-USA basketball clash that one can
only hope it doesn't shape up as a modern skew on the notorious gold
medal game at the 1972 Munich Games, which saw the United States lose
to the Soviet Union after a controversial period of extra-time that
left even the official scorekeeper refusing to sign the scoresheet.
Whatever tomorrow's result, it will be watched in person by both Bush
and the president of China, Hu Jintao.

Just as big ticket football matches are increasingly co-opted as a
backdrop for corporate hospitality, so the Olympics can feel like a
plot device in the global power struggle. Hu will hold talks with
Bush tomorrow - before the game - but over the past few days has had
bilateral meetings with the presidents of Vietnam, Algeria, Sri
Lanka, Timor-Leste, Belarus, Montenegro, Laos, Serbia and Brazil, and
Kim Jong-il's No2. The Dear Leader was a notable no-show, as was
Pervez Musharraf, the impeachment-threatened Pakistan president, who
cancelled at the eleventh hour. Somewhere in the Beijing Games' vast
organisational structure, someone must have sighed with relief. At
least it was one less minefield for the placement

There is simply no space to cover the spider's web of tensions
between the leaders waving from the VIP seats last night, with
relations ranging from the expediently cordial to the openly poisonous.

Were Olympics ever thus? Certainly they were in the ancient world,
where the sacred truce for the duration of the Games meant Olympia
was often a setting for détente. An ancient statue of Pantarces of
Elis honoured not just his victory in the equestrian events but the
fact he had used the Games period to broker peace between the
Achaeans and the Elians and secured the freedom of both sides'
prisoners of war. (Team GB's equestrian hopefuls have a slightly
clearer schedule.)

As for the modern Olympic story, how often it has seemed ineluctably
political. Berlin, Munich, Mexico, Moscow, Los Angeles... the world
has witnessed individual actions taking on vast political resonance,
as in the case of Smith and Carlos, or political forces snuffing out
the individual, as in the case of the murdered Israeli athletes. Even
the torch - that fabled symbol of peace - is not what it seems, a
faux-ancient tradition confected for Adolf Hitler's Berlin Games and
filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her propagandist Olympia. Against such
histories it is impossible to predict how the Beijing narrative will
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank