"I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free."
"Δεν ελπίζω τίποτε. Δεν φοβʊμαι τίποτε. Είμαι λεύτερος."
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Epitaph, Nikos Kazantzakis
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Olympian politics – the continuation of war by other means
The lighting of the Olympic flame is a religious affair. The reenactment of the ancient ceremony is meant to symbolize both the eternal spirit of humanity and our collective belief in peace, shared values, and fair competition. Presumably it is the belief in the sanctity of the games that has led western leaders to call on keeping politics out of the 29th Olympiad, fending off calls for a boycott by democracies of China’s crowning moment. Unfortunately, if the dictators in Beijing remain steadfast in their refusal to recognize that things are changing – including inside the borders of China – it will become increasingly difficult for western leaders to ignore the calls for greater freedom for oppressed minorities there.
The argument that politics and sport do not mix is flawed at its root. The ancient games were all about politics and city-state pride. Recognizing them as a celebration for all Greeks, the city-states would call off war for their duration and would laud their victors as symbols of the superiority of their city. Sometimes, as legend has it, the city state would raze some of its fortifications as a symbol of its invincibility. When Theodosius I banned the Olympic games in 394 AD, he did so for politics – deeming the games pagan in what was by now a Christian Roman Empire.
Since the modern games were inaugurated in 1896, politics intervened on a number of occasions. Most famously the games became political at the Berlin games in 1936, briefly in Mexico City in 1968, at the Munich Olympics in 1972, in Moscow and Los Angeles, in 1980 and 1984 respectively. As the 2008 summer games approach we will witness an increasingly intensifying campaign by activists, which will not leave governments in the west unaffected, and will likely transform the Beijing Olympiad into a highly political affair.
There is nothing wrong with mixing politics and sport. The United States is an oddity in this respect, because its professional sports franchises are apolitical. Republicans and Democrats alike, Americans of all races, religions and creeds, support the same sports team. European soccer was never apolitical – even though there is growing tendency to distort the lines between political identity and commercial interests with the emergence and success of the Champions League. But for most of the past century, clubs in many countries in the world have been identified with the right or the left sides of the political spectrum, with the haves or the have-nots, with the fascists or the communists.
The modern Olympics too have always been political – both in the way the nation-state adopts them as symbols of its achievement and national pride, but also in the way they are awarded. Recently there was also a question raised about the way Kosovo would be represented in the Olympics, since it is a state that the United Nations does not yet recognize. For that there may be solutions – including letting Kosovar athletes march behind the rest of the national flags parading during the opening ceremony. But what does need to be resolved is the question of awarding the games to totalitarian regimes – especially in the post-Cold War era. Should China have been awarded the games in the first place, in view of its dismal human rights record?
Despotic regimes recognize full well the public relations value of displaying their might, be it in military parades or in the number of gold medals accumulated by its robotic athletes. Even the most liberal among us note the medal count, and for smaller states any medal is a source of national pride - of collective achievement. For regimes like the one in Beijing, Mussolini’s Italy during the soccer World Cup in 1934, Hitler’s Germany in 1936, or the Soviets in 1980, the international focus on them and their regime is part of an orchestrated show of their system’s superiority. The international community should cease collaborating with such regimes.
The arguments made that, for example, the thousands of reporters who will flood Beijing will also expose the shortcomings of the Chinese state are insufficient. Western governments should pressure Beijing to speed up reforms in matters that are not solely economic – including matters pertaining to the rights of workers and improved living standards for the millions of Chinese citizens who are not benefiting from the capitalist windfall. And, the western leadership should not shy from spoiling Beijing’s party: athletes should wear armbands expressing their opposition to the oppression of minorities and dissidents in China, and heads of state should not participate in the opening or closing ceremonies. Maybe then Beijing will begin to appreciate the true Olympic spirit.
25 March, 2008