(Olympic) Games Without Frontiers

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, February 27, 2008)


Quick — who won the 200-meter race at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles? Or the long jump? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

How about the same events at Hitler’s 1936 Olympics in Berlin? Ah, that one’s a wee bit easier.

As nearly everyone with a passing familiarity with sports knows, the answer is Jesse Owens. As impressive as Owens’ achievements on the track were in those Games, they’ve become the stuff of legend largely because of how the African-American Owens proved a counter to the racial propaganda that dominated the Nazi-run event.

In other words, for political reasons. While they’re primarily about competition between the world’s best athletes, the Olympics have long been nearly as much about politics. With representatives of most of the world’s nations all jammed under one spotlight, it’s only natural that the Games routinely become a forum to debate the key issues of the day.

That’s part of why two nations’ recent decisions on allowing their athletes to speak their minds at this summer’s Olympics in Beijing were so necessary. And why the idea that those athletes’ free speech at the Games was ever in doubt was so troubling.

Last week, after much public outcry, the New Zealand Olympic Committee agreed to lift a gag order it had written into athletes’ contracts. Just a few days earlier, the British Olympic Association had to clarify its stance on language in its athletes’ contracts, saying the casting of a new clause as censorship was the result of misinterpretation and that, in the words of spokesman Graham Newsom, “There is no intention of gagging anyone.” (Belgium, however, stands by its January decision that its athletes may not discuss political issues in Olympic venues).

The contract New Zealand Olympic athletes signed said they would, “Not make statements or demonstrations (whether verbally or by any act or omission) regarding political, religious or racial matters as such matters are contrary to the objects and purposes of the NZOC.”

Before its reversal, the NZOC argued that the clause simply mirrored the official Olympic charter, which stipulates that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted at Olympic sites.”

While that may be official charter policy, it hasn’t been true for a long time (if it ever was). Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black gloves at Mexico City in 1968 was an image iconic enough to become a popular poster. The oft-referenced 1980 hockey “Miracle on Ice” wasn’t the United States upsetting Finland in the gold-medal game; it was the semifinal against the USSR, because Cold War politics were once again injected into the Olympics.

The initial NZOC rationalization also didn’t address why it only got around to mirroring the official charter this year, though the reason should be obvious enough. “Whatever the official protestations, the stricter ban was not really about protecting the athletes, or the interests of the committee and the Olympic movement,” as the New Zealand Herald correctly argued in its editorial on the day after the reversal, “it was all about not embarrassing the Games’ hosts, in this case the Chinese.”

Giving these Games to Beijing was a controversial decision from the day it was made, and for good reason. The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) human-rights record remains abysmal, with routine crackdowns on pro-democracy and various religious movements. The country continues to occupy Tibet and claim sovereignty over Taiwan. Its rapid current industrialization comes with a bevy of dangerous environmental policies that greatly threaten the global commons. Sixteen of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are now in China, while illegal animal trafficking there continues to decimate species. And, of course, the PRC continues to strongly back (and purchase oil from) the Sudanese regime that has been carrying out genocide in Darfur since 2004.

The PRC obviously deserves no shortage of criticism and, if their governments are made timid by not wanting to risk lucrative trade agreements with China, athletes will no doubt do what they can to tell an audience that doesn’t necessarily follow current events about the dirty business hiding behind these Games.

“All of the language that the IOC uses when talking about the Olympics is that the Games should represent something greater than competition,” American winter gold medalist Joey Cheek, founder of the athletes-against-genocide group Team Darfur, told USA Today. “That mankind can compete and live together in peace through sporting competitions is very lofty language. At some point, if you actually believe the Olympic ideal, you have to take action. You have to speak out.”

More often than not, athletes and others speaking out at the Olympics can only do so much. But they can help raise awareness — and provide important symbolism.

Two of the enduring images of the 2000 Sydney Olympics show how. One was Aboriginal Australian runner Cathy Freeman taking her victory lap around the track while trailing both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag. The other was Peter Garrett and his Midnight Oil bandmates wearing T-shirts reading, “We’re sorry” as they played “Beds are Burning” — the only song about Aboriginal land rights to ever crack the American Top 40 — at the closing ceremonies, as a protest against Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to issue an apology for the country’s treatment of its first people, an apology many hoped would come at the Games.

It’s now eight years later. Around the same time these would-be gag orders were being debated in England and New Zealand, new Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (who defeated John Howard in November) issued that long-awaited formal state apology with a clear majority of the public’s support. And Garrett is now a key member of Rudd’s cabinet.

By coincidence, on the Saturday after the NZOC announced its decision, a handful of Falun Gong practitioners staged a peaceful demonstration in downtown Wellington. At midday, three of them meditated on a small public stage on one of the capital’s busier streets, while large posters on the ground in front explained Falun Gong and the oppression its followers face in China. Thankfully, any athletes who witnessed that day will be free to discuss that oppression themselves once they’re in Beijing. Any other option would have been shameful.

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