Olympic Fallacies

“We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations, and we hope that all people attending the games recognize the importance of this.” Thus spoke Samsung Electronics, one of 12 major corporate sponsors of the Olympics, when asked last week whether recent events in Tibet were causing it any concern. Coca-Cola, another Olympics sponsor, has stated that while it would be inappropriate “to comment on the political situation of individual nations,” the company firmly believes “that the Olympics are a force for good.” The chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, was also quick to declare that “a boycott doesn’t solve anything” — just as he was quick to dismiss the demonstrators who waved a black banner showing interlocked handcuffs, in mockery of the Olympic symbol, at yesterday’s lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece. “It is always sad to see such a ceremony disrupted,” he declared, rather pompously.

And no one was surprised: Companies that have invested millions in sponsorship deals and Olympic bureaucrats who have spent years trying to justify their controversial decision to award the 2008 Games to Beijing are naturally inclined to use those sorts of arguments. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to believe them.

Look a bit closer, in fact, and none of those statements holds up at all. “A boycott doesn’t solve anything.” Well, doesn’t it? Some boycotts do help solve some things. The boycott of South Africa by international competitions was probably the single most effective weapon the international community ever deployed against the apartheid state. (“They didn’t mind about the business sanctions,” a South African friend once told me, “but they minded — they really, really minded — about the cricket.”) The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics helped undermine Soviet propaganda about the invasion of Afghanistan and helped unify the Western world against it. I don’t know for certain, but I’m guessing that from the Soviet perspective, the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later was successful, too. Presumably, it was intended to solidify opposition among the Soviet elite toward the United States in the Reagan years, and presumably it helped.

“The Olympics are a force for good.” Not always! The 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, were an astonishing propaganda coup for Hitler. It’s true that the star performance of Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field great, did shoot some holes in the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority. But Hitler still got what he wanted out of the Games. With the help of American newspapers such as the New York Times, which opined that the Games put Germany “back in the family of nations again,” he convinced many Germans, and many foreigners, to accept Nazism as “normal.” The Nuremburg laws were in force, German troops had marched into the Rhineland, Dachau was full of prisoners, but the world cheered its athletes in Berlin. As a result, many people, both in and out of Germany, reckoned that everything was just fine and that Hitler could be tolerated a bit longer.

“The Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations.” Aren’t they? Actually, the Olympics seem an ideal place for demonstrations. Not only are the world’s media there with cameras running, but the modern Olympics were set up with a political purpose: to promote international peace by encouraging healthy competition among nations. Hence the emphasis on national teams instead of individual competitors; hence the opening ceremony — since copied by other sporting events — as well as the national flags and national anthems.

These elements make the Olympics special, different from other international competitions, but they also sometimes give the Games a nasty edge. The old U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. basketball rivalry; the parade of East German women with husky voices; the lists of who has won how many medals — all of that is evidence of the decades-old politicization of the Olympics. There were black-power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Games. A Palestinian group attacked and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. Australian aborigines protested at the 2000 Sydney Games. And everything associated with the 2008 Olympics, from the massive Beijing building program, to the Olympic torch that is due to be carried across Tibet, to the Chinese Olympic committee’s Web site (which describes China’s commitment to “promoting mass sporting activities on an extensive scale, improving the people’s physique, and spurring the socialist modernization of China”) is blatantly designed to promote the domestic and international image of the Chinese state, too.

No wonder then, that everyone who hates or fears China, whether in Burma, Darfur, Tibet or Beijing, is calling for a boycott. And the Chinese government and the International Olympic Committee are terrified that those appeals will succeed. No one involved in the preparations for this year’s Olympics really believes that this is “only about the athletes,” or that the Beijing Games will be an innocent display of sporting prowess, or that they bear no relation to Chinese politics. I don’t see why the rest of us should believe those things, either.

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