The 1908 Olympics were supposed to have taken place in Rome, not London. But the eruption of Mount Vesuvius two years earlier had drained most of the Italian government’s financial resources, and Great Britain stepped in to save the Summer Games, building a new stadium at London’s White City in a record 10 months.
Yet the competition quickly became embroiled in controversy, with the U.S. team accusing British judges of partiality. It was the first time athletes marched into the stadium behind their respective national flags, but the last time any Olympics would rely on judges exclusively from the country hosting the Games.
Exactly 100 years later, the Olympics are still a flashpoint for controversy. With the 2008 Beijing Games opening less than two weeks away, their Chinese hosts aren’t letting anything — from protests over Darfur, Burma and Tibet to lingering environmental concerns to the recent earthquake that left more than 50,000 dead — get in the way of a perfect finish.
“The Chinese government has taken this as an opportunity not to just celebrate athletics and sports, to make this a sort of warm, fuzzy international event, but has made it a profoundly political one by inviting over 100 heads of state to the opening ceremonies,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet the government is clearly falling quite short of the commitments it made to improve human rights, which is why people have really attached a lot of grievances to these Games.”
Even so, Richardson, who spoke at a recent Council on Foreign Relations seminar on China’s Olympics, said her organization has never pushed for boycotting the Games, which could well end up being the most controversial in history — even before opening ceremonies kick off Aug. 8, at precisely eight seconds after 8:08 p.m., Beijing time.
“It is a little hard to be against something that 1 billion people are for,” she said. “And it was our view that it would be quite alienating to be against China’s hosting of the Games. Frankly, if you advocate a boycott, the conversation essentially stops there. There’s no room to raise other issues, or to take the government at its word to follow through on the commitments it’s made.”
Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, said he’s not surprised that China is using the world’s biggest sporting event to maximize its own political gains and showcase the country’s glories.
“First of all, the Olympics in theory are free of politics and a celebration of athletic prowess, and something that brings the world together. In practice, in modern times, they haven’t been quite that,” he said. “I don’t care whether you look at Munich or Mexico, as you go through the list, groups have attempted to politicize the Games. And there are other countries in Asia — Japan and South Korea, specifically — that saw their own holding of the Olympics as their great coming-out party. So I think that some of what’s happening with China has happened before, on a larger scale. And that’s partly because China simply is a larger story.”
Joseph K. Grieboski, founder and president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, told The Washington Diplomat it would be an illusion — and in fact a disservice — to separate the Olympic Games from the reality of international politics.
“Olympics officials are famous for saying they have nothing to do with politics. The fact of the matter is they have everything to do with politics,” he said. “The very spirit of the Olympics is cross-cultural bridge building using sports. And once those bridges exist, what is their purpose if not to discuss tough issues?”
In fact, controversy has been a mainstay of the Olympics nearly since the moment Athens hosted the first modern games in 1896. Many countries proposed boycotting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, though in the end, nearly every nation showed up. Yet the most memorable event of 1936 wasn’t Adolf Hitler giving the Nazi salute at the opening of the Games, but black American track star Jesse Owens making a mockery of Aryan claims of racial superiority by winning four gold medals.
Thirty-six years later, with Germany once again hosting the Olympics, Palestinian terrorists took a group of Israeli athletes hostage, eventually killing 11 of them. Also at the 1972 Munich Games, the entire national team from Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe) was sent home after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned the athletes as a result of Rhodesia’s apartheid policies.
Apartheid also came into play at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, which were boycotted by 24 of the 116 countries registered for the event — including 22 African nations that stayed away because of the participation of New Zealand, whose rugby team had violated international protocol by playing in South Africa.
Four years later, Moscow became the first city in a communist country to host an Olympics. But 50 countries — led by the United States, Japan and West Germany — refused to send teams because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before. When it was Los Angeles’ turn to host the Olympics in 1984, the Soviets retaliated with a boycott of their own.
Drug scandals overshadowed the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, which was attended by all nations except Cuba and Ethiopia. Terrorism revisited the Games in 1996, when a bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park, killing two people and injuring 111.
Harry Harding, professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said that by pure coincidence, he happened to be visiting China in July 2001, when the IOC awarded the 2008 Games to Beijing.
“Back then, it was seven years off from 2001, and there was little sense that China ran any risks,” Harding recalled, noting that just by winning its Olympic bid China “had overcome the biggest hurdle and now they were going to undertake the most successful Olympic Games in history.”
But that was before demonstrators in Athens, London, Paris, San Francisco and Tokyo disrupted Olympic torch ceremonies as the famous flame traveled along a 130-day, 85,000-mile journey to Beijing. “If the flame is sacred, then so are humans,” the French group Reporters Without Borders said in a written statement. “We cannot let the Chinese seize the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, without denouncing the dramatic situation of human rights in the country.”
Most of those protests stemmed from China’s earlier crackdown in Tibet, but it’s been Beijing’s connection to Darfur that has spurred some of the harshest opposition. As Harding pointed out, “until the protest in Tibet, the calls for boycotts really had nothing to do with China’s internal affairs. They had to do primarily with Darfur, and that was where the ‘Genocide Olympics’ slogan came.”
Foreign Affairs magazine, in a recent article titled “China’s Olympic Nightmare,” said that “for more than a year, China has endured heightened scrutiny of its close economic and political ties to Sudan. A coalition of U.S. celebrities and international human rights activists has ratcheted up the pressure on Beijing to do more to help bring an end to the atrocities in Darfur. The very public attention they have brought to China’s relations with the Sudanese government prompted the movie director Steven Spielberg to withdraw as the artistic adviser for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Games. It also seems to have had some effect on Beijing, which now strives to appear as if it is placing more pressure on Khartoum.”
The Washington-based Save Darfur Coalition has been urging a U.S. boycott of the Beijing Olympics for more than a year. In a July 3 press release, the advocacy organization said it was “deeply disappointed” in the wake of President Bush’s announcement that he would attend the opening ceremonies of the Games.
“Despite its recent tough words, Beijing’s longstanding record on Sudan is clear,” said the coalition’s president, Jerry Fowler. “When China could obstruct meaningful measures to end the violence in Darfur, it did. When Beijing officials could strike economic deals with the Khartoum regime, in part underwriting Sudan’s military campaign against their own civilians, they did.
“The president can still take meaningful action,” added Fowler. “His attendance of the opening ceremonies will provide an opportunity to personally press Chinese leaders on their Darfur policy. The president must take advantage of that opportunity.”
But Bush has countered that he doesn’t need the Games to express concerns about China’s human rights record, and that skipping the Olympics “would be an affront to the Chinese people.” Like Bush, the majority of world leaders have decided to accept Beijing’s invitation to attend the opening and closing ceremonies.
Also in attendance at the Games will be mainland China’s archrival Taiwan, which Beijing considers a breakaway province. Despite a recent warming in cross-Straits relations, Taiwanese officials have engaged in a war of semantics with their counterparts in Beijing over what to call their island’s team at the Olympics, with Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry refusing to accept a translation of “Taipei, China” for its team. Taiwan argues that “Chinese Taipei” was the name agreed upon by the Olympic committees of both Taiwan and China in 1989, and that the government is firmly opposed to the use of “Taipei, China,” which could imply that Taiwan is part of the People’s Republic of China.
Nevertheless, the Taipei-based Sports Affairs Council said the island has no plans to boycott the Olympics because Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office is a nongovernmental organization, and therefore its pronouncements are not an official gesture aimed at lowering Taiwan’s status.
“The smooth participation of athletes from Taiwan in the Beijing Games promises to be an encouraging symbol that will form part of a new basis for continued goodwill across the Taiwan Strait,” said Eddy Tsai, the outgoing chief of the press division at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington. “We look forward to enjoying the hospitality of this year’s Olympic host city, as well as the spirit of friendly and harmonious competition that will prevail in Beijing this summer.”
But what happens after the Games are over and the fuzzy feelings have faded? From the point of view of human rights activists, things don’t look too encouraging.
According to a July 13 article in the Sunday Times of London, internal Communist party documents have revealed that “China is planning a program of harsh political repression in Tibet despite a public show of moderation to win over world opinion before the Olympic Games.”
The newspaper also reported that a “campaign of re-education” has been outlined in confidential speeches to meetings of Communist Party members by Zhang Qingli, the hard-line party secretary of Tibet.
“Zhang has admitted behind closed doors that the Chinese authorities in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, face a tide of encirclement and that anti-Chinese violence in March destroyed social stability. He has warned that final victory is far off,” the Times reported.
The Foreign Affairs article warns that “a poor outcome for the Games could engender another round of nationalist outbursts and Chinese citizens decrying what they see as racism, anti-Chinese bias, and a misguided sense of Western superiority. This inflamed form of Chinese nationalism could be the most enduring and dangerous outcome of the protests surrounding the Olympics.”
In the meantime, according to Grieboski of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, the Olympic Games themselves are at a decisive turning point.
“They will either be nothing more than a meeting every four years to play sports, or become an agent of change to make progress and dialogue around the world,” he argues. “But if we keep things like forced abortions, religious persecution and political oppression quiet simply for the sake of good public relations, then the Olympics as a movement will have lost its soul.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.