Olympic Hurdles: Let the Protests Begin

The gift, presented by the Chinese government, of a global stage for human rights protesters to highlight their cause, would be admirable if it were not unintentional. Advocates of the ‘Free Tibet’ and ‘Save Darfur’ campaigns can hardly believe the opportunity that has been handed to them. It is almost as if the Chinese government are bizarrely inviting dissent upon themselves, like a stubborn old man only willing to concede on his own peculiar terms. But what we have seen so far has been anything but China’s terms.

Despite Chinese intentions, or rather because of them, the scenes of farce that have thus far greeted the torch on its aptly named ‘journey of harmony’ tour have come in about two parts absurdity and one part free speech repression. In London last Sunday, police were ordering protesters to remove t-shirts with political slogans and also confiscating Tibetan flags. Meanwhile, the torch was negotiated through the city by a former children’s television presenter surrounded by a small band of elite Chinese anti-terror officers. The show must go on I guess.

This, obviously, was not how it was supposed to be. This was to be China’s year of goodwill, its statement of progress to the world but the world has not been remiss in documenting China’s domestic repression and its support of foreign genocide in Darfur. The short-sightedness with which Beijing has viewed global opinion is illustrated by how strongly its expectations of the ‘journey of harmony’ were confounded in Athens, London, Paris and, now, San Francisco.

We all knew that we would be seeing some kind of organized demonstration against the Chinese in their Olympic year, but by touring the torch (a practice inaugurated by no less a tyrant than Hitler), the Chinese have all but provided demonstrators a time, a place and best of all: unbridled media coverage. All the seminars on activism and organizing recently in vogue could be made redundant for the next few months by a government only too willing to provide a free ‘Activism 101’ tour.

And for all those who are quick to support or attend these rallies there are others who either believe that sport is no arena for political statements, such as many of San Francisco’s Chinatown residents, or, in fact, see no point in protesting at all. Amongst the editorials excoriating China’s human rights record yesterday, I found two pieces that articulated these opposing views to the protesters.

The first I read was an article in the Washington Post by Chinese-American actor Joan Chen. She argues that despite China’s worrying human rights record, much progress is being made and anyway,

Let’s celebrate the Olympics for what the Games are meant to be — a bridge for friendship, not a playground for politics.”

The argument that sport should never mix with politics, that sport essentially operates in a vacuum morally superior to the murky world of politics, is a popular one but also one that has no cognizance of the real world we live in. If the Olympics were taking place in a vacuum, then that point might be acceptable, but the fact remains that it is China who is hosting the games, and with China invariably follows its image as authoritarian oppressor. Unfortunately for sports lovers, China’s record and the Olympics cannot be not mutually exclusive. To ask people to suspend their disbelief for the brief period of the Games in the hope that sporting solidarity will bridge division, and then afterwards resume admonishing China for its conduct, amounts to nothing more than a perfect exercise in hypocrisy.

At best sport is nothing more than symbolism. And although symbolism is a powerful tool, which is why the Chinese are so invested in hosting the Olympics, the symbolism of sport rarely has impact unless there is some political influence, and even then that impact is often anticlimactic. The 1996 South African Rugby World Cup and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics are classic reminders that the hope and euphoria engendered by sporting achievements struggle to translate into real world change. Those who believe that the healing quality of the Olympics will influence Chinese officials are sorely mistaken. There have been truly momentous sporting occasions throughout the previous century, such as when German and English soldiers played soccer together on Christmas Day during the First World War, or when Luz Long, the German long jumper, helped Jesse Owens to win gold at Long’s own expense, before Hitler in Berlin. But no sporting event has ever ushered in a change of heart from any government.

For the average person to ignore China’s policies out of ignorance is sad, but ignoring them out of reverence for Olympic glory would be tragic.

The other article I found discouraging protesters from taking to the streets, albeit implicitly, came from Tim Rutten in the LA Times. His point was simple: don’t bother, it won’t work because it never has before. He cites numerous examples and actually logically follows on from my own argument: that sport rarely achieves anything outside of its own domain and so it goes for protesting sport too.

The problem with Rutten’s argument is that he fails to distinguish between people protesting on the streets and government boycotts. He uses Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics as the standard bearer for the ultimate sporting protest, as if it were the natural culmination of street demonstrations.

What Rutten fails to see is that of paramount importance for protesters is not the boycotting of the Olympics – which would only be a symbolic gesture, and there he is correct – but rather the raising of consciousness and pressure on China to observe human rights. Whereas Carter’s boycott was one of principle, the current demonstrators seek to achieve more than just sticking to their values. They seek to put China’s policies at the forefront of global opinion, reducing the Olympic Games to what they really are: entertainment.

It is important to understand that these recent protests have not been directed at the Olympics; the Games have merely provided a platform for people to demonstrate against China. So when Rutten suggests that it is futile to use the Olympics as a soapbox he misses the point.

During the run up to the Iraq War, did the unprecedented size of the protests prevent catastrophe in Iraq? No. But have they severely tarnished the US reputation abroad, and consequently impacted US foreign relations? Did they raise the conciousness of otherwise apathetic people? The answer is a resounding yes.

For the demonstrator in the street, the importance of protesting is, of course, the cause of the protest itself. But on a higher level, the opportunity to use one’s voice is exactly what defines our liberty. It galvanizes civic participation and enriches our democracy. And when the capacity to exercise that right is diminished by external forces, the fervency with which people desire to express that right, rises.

If the impassioned protests in Europe, and now California, have served to highlight anything it is that this sad irony is utterly lost on the Chinese government.


~ by oddlyamerican on April 10, 2008.

4 Responses to “Olympic Hurdles: Let the Protests Begin”

  1. This guy was on NPR yesterday morning, and I thought it was pretty funny what he had to say.


    I also heard another point of view from a guy who has a few olympic medals to his name and has carried the torch 4 times. He was protesting against the protesters saying that he fully supports what they are doing it but would only tolerate it “to the tip of (his) nose,” meaning that he didn’t appreciate the fact that folks who had the opportunity to carry the torch (undeniably an emotional highlight of their lives) have been denied that. It kind of gets into a debate of a greater cause or one being more important than the other.

    A son of my mom’s friend has recently been diagnosed with a disease that has no cure. At the risk of naming it incorrectly, I’ll unfortunately have to leave it at that. Instead of giving up on life, he has taken it upon himself to do his best to bring his disease into the limelight and give it more public attention than it currently has, which it obviously needs since I do not remember it by name. He wrote an essay about his story and the result of this essay was his nomination to carry the torch through part of San Francisco. He is by no means pro-torture and in no way supports what China is guilty of doing. His reasons for carrying the torch were his and his alone. He’s been denied that, and I’m not sure that those facts sit well with me.

    Its interesting how radically different things are once they become personal. I’m sure I’d feel very different if it were my family massacred by the Chinese Government as well.

    I don’t really have a point, I’m quickly realizing, but your post inspired those thoughts so I figured I wouldn’t pass the opporunity to share.

    Can’t wait to see you again soon.

  2. Hey, good piece. Being a citizen of a country which only relatively recently experienced the patriotic orgy that is the OLYMPICS, I am prompted to comment. Few foreign citizens realise the kind of internal atmosphere which is generated when a relatively small, maligned or poor country hosts the Olymics, least of all Americans. The US is so big in every sense that even the Olympics can barely manage to distract it as an entity. For the rest of the world, however, the Olympics often really MEAN something. That is why your comments interested me. You spoke of the opportunity to protest and the high likelihood that it will make no difference whatsoever (is that a word?) I agree.

    What I do think, however, is that China is going to wake up with one awesome patriotic hangover come October. It happened in Australia. For years before the event, Olympics fever was everywhere. The event took on a meaning much greater than itself. It became an opportunity for self congratulation in all its guises. You couldn’t turn on the radio, open a newspaper or walk down the street without the OLYMPICS and how great AUSTRALIA is being shoved down your throat. Australia was going to show the world, yada yada. It was truly disgusting. And what happened when the games were finished? Well – nothing. It was like the whole country woke up from a dirty dream, realised that it wasn’t real and couldn’t continue in daylight. Sure the olympics continued to be spoken about, but it passed from public consciousness remarkably quickly for an event that had preoccupied us for several years. For a time even, the media and people in general sort of wondered what to do with themselves. What am I going to do now? What is there to look forward to now? There is no greater festival than this!

    It is this feeling, I think, which is going to cause some change and do some good in China. From all reports, both media and friends who have lived there, the Olympics have taken on a greater symbolism in China than one could have thought possible for a sporting festival. It has become a driver of economic growth, a beacon of hope, a reason for existence and a goal to strive to for hundreds of millions of people. Most sinister, it has becom a tool of distraction for the state and its media – and one which I believe and hope will come back to haunt them. Because in about six months time, one and a half billion people are going to wake up and wonder, What’s Next?

    Amidst the cries of MONEY, I hope there are more than a few of FREEDOM as well.

  3. The point you bring up Brian is a fascinating one and one I’ve wrestled with for years, namely at what point do we cede our personal attachments to rational argument and/or the greater good.

    I’m sure there are a number of people out there who vote one way on an issue but when it directly affects them might think twice. Say people are in favor of wind turbines as a source of alternative energy but when a proposal is made to erect them in front of their beautiful view of the ocean they form a pressure group to nix that proposal. Or most famously of all is the example of ultra-Conservative Dick Cheney’s ambiguity over same-sex marriage because of his lesbian daughter.

    However, the example you cite is obviously far more personal and a tragic at that. But it seems to me the problem should be where to direct your blame and anger. Easier said than done I know, but I would argue that the tragedy of this boy’s disappointment does not lie at the hands of the demonstrators but at the hands of the Chinese government, i.e. if it were not for the state sponsored terrorism perpetrated by Beijing then the protesters would not feel compelled to protest.

    I suppose it is a question of how far does the buck stop, and for me what helped me decide and what I feel is the crux of the issue – as crude as it may sound – is the idea of right and wrong. Protesting is a democratic right and should be exercised with total freedom and what the Chinese government have done and conitune to do with regard to human rights is abominable and therefore wrong.

    Thanks for your contribution Brian. You are, as always, welcome to express your thoughts and ideas here. In fact I kindly urge you to do so.

  4. M,

    Great to have you here and your ‘oddlyaustralian’ ideas too. I couldn’t agree with you more on your take on the whole Olympic idolotry.

    What you said about the build up to the Olympics in Austraia is given credence by the expectations of the Chinese government and their supporters. While watching some reports on TV the other day I noticed the common attiitude amongst many Chinese nationals was that at last China was going to show the world. And everytime I questioned ‘what is it they are going to show exactly? Routine suppression of dissent perhaps? Sponsorship of the genocide in Darfur? Thousands of cases of cheap labor exploitation?

    Of course the answer would be given in the abstract. Things like strength, courage, nobility, honor and all the rest of it. The things that apparently characterize every other nation on this planet, and that’s really one of the things that bother me about the Olympics – even though my entry doesn’t address this – the way in which sport can conflate these abstract notions as if they are tangible. I sincerely believe that the evocation of these lofty ideals is detrimental to our debate about real-life occurences.

    Maybe I’ll leave this for another time and with a little more thought and turn it into another entry at some point.

    Thanks again M, keep bringing your thoughts.

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