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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Politics and the Olympics? Uneasy bedfellows…

With the countdown to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, international political pressure has increased on China to assume accountability for its poor human rights record, domestically and abroad. While the media contemplates the appropriateness of sport and politics as bedfellows, a more pertinent question should be whether the symbolic actions taken in the former arena can lead to substantive changes in the latter.

Ever since movie director Steven Spielberg withdrew as an artistic adviser to the Games in February this year, China has faced one disastrous blow after another to its image as host of the highly-anticipated 2008 Olympics. From scathing accusations of abetting the genocide in Darfur, to unrelenting denunciations against its violent policies towards Tibet, to damning criticisms over domestic repression and human rights abuses, this has surely not been the coming-out party that China had envisioned when it won the Olympic bid eight years ago. But while the Chinese authorities and sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) plead with the international community to keep the Games free of politics, it is clear that they have, and will continue to be an irresistible forum for political statements and causes. The more important issue at hand is whether the protests, boycotts and other symbolic actions that we have seen in the past and in the lead-up to the Games in Beijing can affect any substantive changes in government policy. Judging from past records where politics have attempted to ride on the back of sports, it seems unlikely that these current efforts to pressure China into cleaning up its human rights record will lead to any real policy shifts in the near future.

Politicizing the Olympic Games

Despite the Olympic ideal, which envisions an event where the political policies and ideologies of nations are set aside during the course of competition, the history and reality of the Games shows a different story. Ever since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where Hitler used the occasion to exhibit Germany’s regained status and strength among European nations, the Games have found themselves at the center of numerous political encounters (1). Some of the notable instances include: the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously stood on the medal podium with their fists raised in the air as a salute to the Black Power civil rights movement in the US; in 1972, when the Munich Games were marred by a Palestinian terrorist attack, which left 11 Israeli athletes dead after a hostage-taking did not produce the release of Palestinian prisoners; in 1980, where over 60 nations led by the US boycotted the Olympics in Moscow, as a protest to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and four years later, when the Soviets retaliated with their own boycott of the Games in Los Angeles. Even China, who is now lamenting the injustices of mixing politics and sport, has used the Olympics in the past for its own political ends. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne for instance, the Chinese delegation withdrew after the IOC recognized Taiwan as a separate nation (and would not return until 1980). Furthermore, Taiwan was forced to withdraw from the Montreal Olympics in 1976 after China pressured the Canadian Olympic Committee to deny the Taiwanese the right to compete (2).

In short, as one of the most highly publicized and widely-covered events in the world, it is no surprise that the Olympics provide an ideal platform for bold foreign policy statements, and for loud clamoring on behalf of countless political causes. This trend is likely to continue, with no signs of abating in the future. The real question however, is whether these political actions are successful in effecting change.

An Olympic Solution to Human Rights in China?

With billions of dollars spent, and with the pride of nearly one-fifth of the world’s population staked in the 2008 Beijing Games, there is no doubt that China’s image as a major yet benign power is currently in jeopardy. But will the disruptions to the Olympic torch procession, the criticism by athletes and actors against Chinese ties with the Sudanese government, or the threats of national leaders boycotting the opening and closing ceremonies be enough to precipitate change in government policy?

Embarrassment, maybe. Change is a tougher goal. In considering whether the possibility exists in pressuring Beijing to reverse its policies in Sudan or Tibet, and to relent in its internal human rights abuses, we should bear two things in mind: one, the track record of political change based on actions taken through the Olympics; and two, the nature of the adversary that is currently being challenged.

While the images of Smith and Carlos will remain as one of the most memorable moments in the history of the civil rights struggle, it should be noted that it did not represent a turning point in that movement (3). Similarly, a ban placed on South Africa in 1964 because of its apartheid policies did nothing to bring a swift end to the segregationist system, which took another thirty years to fall. The war in Afghanistan continued undeterred for another eight years, despite the large boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Looking at all of these examples, it seems plausible that changes in policies have not occurred in large part because of the sheer immensity of the issues being addressed. In dealing with such critical matters as civil rights, governance, and war, symbolic actions- regardless of how persistent- can only achieve so much in the Olympic forum. These actions can serve to draw attention and to shame, but they are unlikely to apply the relevant pressure needed for change. With a long list of grievances lodged against the Chinese government, from matters of internal governance to issues of territorial integrity, it seems that the international community has chosen yet another difficult path in which to make in-roads, especially by addressing them through the IOC. As UN sport advisor Willi Lemke notes, “these issues should be brought up with political bodies, human rights organizations and the UN” (4); it is not within the IOC’s qualifications nor its mandate to become immersed in these matters.

Notwithstanding the poor track record of political change in the Olympic arena, or the unrealistic expectations of reversing significant political policies through actions taken during the Games, an additional measure of consideration in this case is the nature of the government itself. It has often been mistakenly assumed that China’s increased integration into the world economy would translate into greater political cooperation and moderation in the areas of foreign policy and internal governance, respectively. But as we look back since the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping started China on a new path towards economic modernization, it is evident that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to rule- in many ways- with an iron fist. Even while it has toned down some of its aggressive rhetoric vis-à-vis its stance on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan, China still values control and territorial integrity as its highest priorities. As Nirav Patel argues, those who believe that the protests and boycotts taken against the 2008 Beijing Games to pressure China into dialogue over issues like Tibet “fail to take into account how much the Chinese Communist Party values control over China’s sovereignty and internal affairs” (5). He goes on to write that the Chinese people have been skeptical of the ability of outsiders to force the CCP to relent in domestic repression because “they understand that the government’s desire to remain omnipotent is mutually exclusive with respecting people’s rights” (6). This fact, which is all-too-clear to the people of China, seems to have gone overlooked by the outside world.

Taking Aim at Change
If protests and boycotts can only serve to embarrass the Chinese rather than bring about change, then it stands to reason that there may not be any good that comes out of the recent efforts to sabotage the Beijing Olympics. Regardless of the abuses that China’s government must claim responsibility for, few among them are new concerns: Tibetan autonomy has been an oft-neglected issue for almost sixty years, the genocide in Darfur involves far more villains than China itself, and the domestic human rights record remains a secondary issue for most foreign politicians, who continue to privilege trade relations with this economic giant. If the international community is serious about pressuring China, it will consider elevating these various concerns to the top of the agenda within the major global political bodies. It will choose real dialogue over symbolic actions, and it will continue to push for change once the spotlight of the Olympics has faded. To hope for monumental change within months of the world’s largest sporting event would not only be futile, but would rob all those involved in the Games- not least of whom, the Chinese people- of their long-awaited moment of splendor


(1) Mellbye, Anne. “Politics and the Olympics.” Guardian Unlimited 5 May 2008
(2) Ibid.
(3) In fact, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Games following their actions, and were heavily criticized by the US sporting community for years after their return.
(4) von Gottberg, Victoria. “Politics Doesn't Belong at Olympics, Says UN Sport Advisor.” Deutsche Welle World. (26 April 2008) 5 May 2008

(5) Patel, Nirav. “China and Tibet: Olympic Boycotts Would Be Counterproductive.” World Politics Review Exclusive (28 April 2008) 5 May 2008
(6) Ibid.

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