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There's a lot of debate and discussion about what to do with the upcoming Olympics. You won't find any government representatives who approve of what the Chinese are doing to the Tibetans, but you also won't find any agreement on what to do about about the situation. Given that the Olympics are approaching, it's impossible not to link the two issues in some way — you can't deplore what the Chinese are doing with Tibet but then go to the Olympics as if nothing were wrong. Something has to be said and something has to be done, but what?
One obvious possibility is to boycott the Olympics entirely, but that's also an extreme option that shouldn't be taken lightly. A common objection to a full boycott of the Olympics is to argue that sports aren't political, and that involvement in sporting events shouldn't be used as a political tool. This argument sounds superficially plausible, but at best it represents a naively idealized view of the world — and one which, in the long run, only serves to promote the interests of the privileged political and cultural elite.
Just about everything is political to one degree or another, and denying the political dimensions of some aspect of culture is a way to prevent serious debates about it. Preventing serious debate about some issue means preventing those who are not privileged and without influence from having a say. That's why you'll generally only find those who are benefiting from the current status quo saying that something which helps them and their friends isn't really "political."
Discussions about boycotting the Olympics in China inevitably bring up comparisons with the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany. The analogy shouldn't be taken too far and I'm not going to try to draw all kinds of parallels between the Germany and China. Instead, I just want to use the example of Nazi Germany to show how the argument that sports aren't political fails. Sports in Germany wasn't just slightly political, it was highly politicized — just as was everything else in Nazi Germany.
According to Joseph Goebbels, "German sports have only one task: to strengthen the character of the German people, imbuing it with the fighting spirit and steadfast camaraderie necessary in the struggle for its existence." Sports were used to strengthen Germany and the "Aryan" race. Jews, Gypsies, gays, and other inferior types were excluded from sports organizations wherever possible. Images of sports were used to reinforce Nazi ideology about the superiority of German Aryans over all others.
It wasn't just sports generally that were politicized, though, it was also the Olympics in particular. Germans were told that they would win the most medals because their Aryan athletes were biologically superior to the rest of the world, as was the Aryan cultural and political system. As the Nazi leaders correctly perceived, countries coming to the Olympics and acquiescing to Nazi management of the games would also be acquiescing to the Nazi system for managing society — complete with a contempt for fairness, equality, and all the other ideals which the Olympics supposedly stood for.
William Shirer wrote in his diary, "I'm afraid the Nazis have succeeded with their propaganda. First, the Nazis have run the Games on a lavish scale never before experienced, and this has appealed to the athletes. Second, the Nazis have put up a very good front for the general visitors, especially the big businessmen." The Nazi regime won a lot of positive press and created a lot of positive impressions all over the world, all of which might have plausibly inhibited anti-Nazi political efforts before World War II started.
Should the Western democracies have boycotted the Berlin Olympics in 1936? Attending boosted the profile and reputation of the Nazi government in a variety of ways. The Olympics ensured the legitimacy of the Nazis in the eyes of the world; they also boosted the authority of the Nazis at home. Perhaps a broad boycott would have at least forced the Nazis to hesitate in their plans — the Nazis were always very, very worried about public perception, though primarily at home rather than abroad.
China has "warned" the International Olympic Committee to keep "politics" out of sports, but it is clear that politics are inextricably bound up with sports generally and the Olympics in particular. The very goal or purpose of the Olympics is to promote peace and understanding, which is political. The Olympics is used by every host nation to promote themselves, their culture, and their people — all political endeavors. There were political reasons behind the creation of the Olympics. There are political reasons behind hosting the Olympics. There are political reasons behind giving the Olympics to a nation.
Carrying the Olympic torch through various nations and cities is designed to send a political message about the ideals of world peace and unity. Protests along the route, as well as attempts to extinguish the flame, are designed to send a contrary political message: that China has corrupted those ideals, that the torch can no longer symbolize those ideals, and even worse that the Olympic organizers are complicit in all this. Changing the route of the torch sends a political message: that protesters are strong enough to disrupt the message which those in power wish to send.
Having the torch accompanied by more police and paramilitary guards than observers sends what I think is the strongest political message: our political and corporate leaders will invest more in protecting symbols from the people than they will invest in protecting what those symbols are supposed to represent to the community and the people. This has long been policy in China, but carrying China's Olympic flame around the world means that those policies are also being carried around the world, making other world leaders even more complicit than they would be otherwise.
With all the debate over boycotting some aspect of the Olympics, why didn't anyone suggest boycotting the torch? Just refuse to allow one's community to take part in the farce of hosting a symbol which has been corrupted by a nation that doesn't believe in or protect the basic values which the torch represents. If even some of the torch carriers had refused at the last minute to run their route, it would have sent the political message that there is no honor to be found in carrying a symbol of peace and unity that has been corrupted and undermined by China.
The only case of anything like this was Majora Carter, a civil rights activist from New York City who was invited to carry the torch for a stretch in San Francisco. She pulled a Tibetan flag from her sleeve and was promptly attacked by Chinese paramilitary guards which the American government had allowed in. Local police didn't merely stand by and watch, the pushed Majora Carter into the crowd. Another torch-bearer, Richard Doran, demonstrated the degree to which he has been co-opted by saying that it was "disgusting and appalling" and that she had "dishonored" herself for standing up for the Tibetans. It was OK for him to wear a helmet to honor firefighters killed on 9/11, but not for someone to carry a flag to honor Tibetans. Jim Dolan said that she didn't "represent the best of American citizens" in standing up for Tibetan rights.
Those are just private citizens who have willingly give up their autonomy and independence to more powerful interests — they don't mind becoming a vehicle for governments and corporations to express official, approved messages. But what do those powerful interests say for themselves? Coca-Cola officials said that "It's unfortunate that Ms.Carter used an invitation to participate in the torch relay as a platform to make a personal, political statement." You see, it's OK for Coca-Cola to underwrite corporate political statements they approve of, but it's "unfortunate" if any of their hired guns choose to exercise personal autonomy to make political statements of their own.
Don't for a second forget the involvement of corporations here: they have billions invested in the games and they expect to rake in billions more in profits from the huge Chinese market. Anything that disrupts the Olympics in China is a threat to their bottom line, and if the Tibetans have to be thrown under the bus for that to happen — along with any activists who are foolish enough to think they have a right to speak their mind — then that's what will happen. A billion Chinese will keep drinking Coke with a smile.
A complete boycott is, as noted above, an extreme response. Many object to a boycott because it "only punishes the athletes" who as a consequence cannot attend, despite training years for the Olympics. They attend, though, as representatives of the nation, and their attendance thus signals the nation's satisfaction with the host country's relationship to the ideals of the Olympics. Not attending does not "only punish the athletes," it also hurts the host country — especially a country like China, where saving or losing face can be so important. It further harms the corporations who are underwriting the games and trying to make a profit on the backs of those oppressed by the Chinese government.
If athletes do attend, their ability to express themselves freely will be threatened by the Olympic organizers, thus further demonstrating their complicity in China's oppression of basic human rights. It might be understandable to deny athletes an Olympics platform for personal political causes, but the ban on "propaganda" doesn't provide any guidance on what separates propaganda from free speech. Athlete's naturally can't wear "Free Tibet" shirts while competing, but even Tibetan flags in their personal quarters are prohibited. The lack of clear boundaries, and the threat of withholding medals from those who cross those alleged boundaries, imposes a chill on all speech, making it difficult for anyone to express anything.
What China does to its citizens, the Olympic organizers do to the athletes — and only the Chinese government wins when the Olympics become a tool of Chinese oppression. How long before the experience of Majora Carter comes to impact us all? How long before your local police begin enforcing Chinese rules at the behest of Chinese paramilitary groups?