Monday, August 11, 2008

The Politics of the Olympic Games

I was 11 years-old in 1972. The Olympic Games that year form my earliest recollections of the world's quadrennial sports competition, but also my earliest memories of Middle East terrorism.

The '72 games were far from the first to be so politicized (Berlin in '36 and Mexico City in '68 come to mind), and this year - right on cue - we've seen the tremendous political conflict leading up to this year's summer games in Beijing. Indeed, as Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal argued, in "
China's Olympic Nightmare," Beijing's coming-out party has been wracked by organized anti-Chinese political activism around world. China's politburo may have thought the protests would be isolated or overwhelmed by the excitement and spectacle of the approaching competition, but from human rights to enviromental pollution, China's public relations have been hammered, and the regime's not expected to get as big a boost from the Olympics as had been anticipated.

From the perspective of an observer, the broadcast and images of Beijing's opening ceremonies, and the initial competitions, seem to have dampened some of the pessimism of that thesis.

Beijing Olympics

As the games have commenced, I've been impressed with Presdident Bush's presence at the Olympics, which gives some weight to the message that China has emerged as an accepted partner on the world's stage (it will be more difficult for the U.S. to paint Beijing as outside the institutional rings of power in world politics, if it wasn't before). Others are appalled. Gordon Chang argued that Bush's presence on opening night legitimizes China's authoritarian rule. Christy Hardin Smith attacks Bush for seeking his own poliltical rehabilitation in the People's Republic.

All of this is a reminder of how essentially politicized is the Olympic competition. Foreign Policy has more on that:

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge said in March, “We do not make political choices, because if we do, this is the end of the universality of the Olympic Games.” Two weeks later, Rogge observed indignantly, “Politics invited itself in[to] sports. We didn’t call for politics to come.” But after 75 years of watching the political manipulation and exploitation of the Olympic Games, can anyone actually believe this?

Trapped by its grandiose goal of embracing the entire “human family” at whatever cost, the IOC has repeatedly caved in and awarded the games to police states bent on staging spectacular festivals that serve only to reinforce their own authority. Of course, the most notorious example is the 1936 Berlin Games, which were promoted by a network of Nazi agents working both inside and outside the IOC. Pierre de Coubertin, the French nobleman who founded the modern Olympic movement, called Hitler’s games the fulfillment of his life’s work. As a reward for this endorsement, the Nazi Foreign Office nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

But the IOC’s history of working with unsavory regimes didn’t end with the Second World War. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were awarded to a one-party, faux democratic government that hoped to use the games to legitimize its rule. Like the 2008 Games, they were confronted with massive antigovernment demonstrations that culminated with the Mexican Army mowing down 300 protesters. (The IOC has never acknowledged this greatest of Olympic-related political crimes.) The 1980 Moscow Olympics were only awarded to the Soviet Union when, in 1974, it threatened to leave the Olympic “family” after losing its bid for the 1976 Games. The IOC awarded the 1988 Olympics to Seoul in 1981, one year after South Korea’s military government carried out a massacre in the city of Kwangju, where paratroopers crushed a citizens’ revolt against the junta, killing at least 200 and injuring more than 1,000 people.

Whether unwelcome or not, politics is a part of the games. The problem is, the IOC seems not to have a clue as to what to do about it. Having failed to anticipate the scope of the anti-China protests this year, and lacking any real political clout, the IOC has fallen back on old clich├ęs about Olympic “diplomacy” and its “nonpolitical” mission on behalf of peace and human rights.
Here's more detail on the Olympic politics of human rights:

When the IOC awarded the games to China in 2001, it assured the world that it was “not naive.” There would eventually be “discussions” about China’s human rights policies, the IOC promised. It was apparently the committee’s hope that the games would catalyze some sort of political opening. By the spring of 2008, as Chinese troops stormed into Lhasa, the IOC was claiming that the games had “advanced the agenda of human rights” by putting China’s human rights record on the front pages of newspapers around the world. That the committee would have much preferred to be spared this attention was wisely left unsaid. Nor has the IOC been willing to demand better behavior from China’s rulers. IOC president Rogge prefers to condemn “violence from whatever side.”

What the Olympics promote instead is a form of amoral universalism in which all countries are entitled to take part in the games no matter how barbaric their leaders may be. Some argue that the United Nations follows the same principle. But don’t be fooled. On a good day, the United Nations can affect the balance of war and peace. On its best day, the IOC cannot. What the IOC offers instead is a highly commercial global sports spectacle. It was instructive, for instance, to hear in April the sentimental invocations of “the Olympic family” as the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee quarreled in Beijing over their shares of global revenues from the games.

“Olympic diplomacy” has always been rooted in a doublespeak that exploits the world’s sentimental attachment to the spirit of the games. In the absence of real standards, the spectacle of Olympic pageantry substitutes for a genuine concern for human rights. At the heart of this policy is a timid and euphemizing rhetoric that turns violent demonstrations and state-sponsored killings into “discussions,” a combination of grandiosity and cluelessness that has long marked the IOC’s accommodating attitude toward unsavory Olympic hosts. Even today, with regard to Beijing, the committee has fallen back on its old habit of claiming to be both apolitical and politically effective at the same time. Although the IOC “is not a political organization,” it does claim to “advance the agenda of human rights.” Sadly, neither is true.
I think it's pretty easy to get caught up in the "spirit of the games," and to forget the brutality of the Chinese state.

In fact, the intensity of the competition - and the brilliance of athletic performances - have a way of melting even the hardest hearts pushing for greater democratization and liberty for the Chinese people.

It's a tough call, for deepening engagement, but an important one. But I'm going hold off on those questions for a few more days, while I tune into
the lesser politics of Michael Phelps' quest for eight Olympic gold medals, among other things.

Photo Credit: New York Times