spring 2008: volume 7: issue 2
Oxonian Review of Books

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From the Editor: Politics at Mount Olympus

by Peiling Li

In 1936, Olympic organiser Carl Diem proposed the inclusion of a torch relay between Olympia and Berlin to herald the beginning of the Games. Behind this prelude ceremony, however, laid motives quite contrary to the characteristics that we associate with the flame today. Rather than act as a symbol of hope that embodied, as the Olympic Museum puts it, the “positive values that Man has always associated with fire,” the first incarnation of the modern Olympic flame was conceived as an emblem of Aryan superiority as the flame’s journey was intended to emphasise the strong Aryan connection between classical Greece and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Such a controversial act is one among many that mar an event that the Olympic Movement professes to be a harmonious and politically neutral one. Some of the better-known incidents occurred during the Cold War, a political climate that left its mark on the Games. At the 1952 Helsinki Games, Soviet participants kept to their own lands, and crossed their borders only to compete. The 1956 Melbourne Games suffered from two separate boycotts. Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon boycotted in protest of Britain, Israel, and France’s attack on the Suez Canal, while the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland spurned the Games because of the Soviet’s crushing of the Hungarian revolution. In Tokyo in 1964, South Africa was banned from the Games due to apartheid, and only regained its standing as a participant in 1992. The Munich Games of 1972 carried on after gunmen from the Palestinian Black September group killed eleven Israeli athletes. The US led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games resulted in a Soviet led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. In 1988 Ethiopia and Cuba joined North Korea in a sympathy strike during the Seoul Games because North Korea had not been named as South Korea’s co-host. Although the Games since 1988 have remained fairly quiet in comparison to the Games of the past, they have not been without their own controversies surrounding the use of steroids, Australian aboriginal populations, and judging mishaps.

While the periodic nature of the Games has provided us with a rhythmic reminder of humanity’s inability to peacefully co-exist, there is ample precedent for ostensibly apolitical events to fall victim to troubled international relations. As Abigail Bright astutely points out in this issue’s review of the From Russia exhibit in London, few diplomats would have anticipated that “Russo-Anglo tensions [would have] bled into the preserve of the art exhibition…whereby the relations between the two countries are being mediated over the oils and canvasses of several Grand Masters.” Events proclaiming to transcend differences and improve relations between embroiled countries, it seems, rarely ever come close to doing so. While the IOC portrays the Games as a harbinger of peace, the history of controversy at the Games seems to underscore that the Olympics, more often than not, brings political tensions to mind first.

And so the 2008 Olympic torch relay—touted by Beijing as the Journey of Harmony—is the latest episode in the epic of politically motivated Olympic mishaps. Much to the IOC and Beijing’s chagrin, the relay has become a forum for a number of issues regarding China’s actions domestically and internationally. The troubles began in September 2007 when Olympic officials in Taiwan and Beijing cancelled the Taiwanese leg of the relay because the proposed route seemed to cast Taiwan as united with China. In February 2008 Steven Spielberg resigned as the 2008 Games’ artistic adviser to protest China’s refusal to help stop the genocide and human rights abuses in Darfur. In Greece the torch lighting ceremony was disrupted by pro-Tibet demonstrators in March, and protests and unrest within Tibet (which were accompanied by harsh retributive actions by the Chinese government) have strained relations between China and those countries whose citizens harbour sympathy for the Tibetans. The torch relays in April through London, Paris, San Francisco, India, Buenos Aires, Jakarta, and Thailand have all seen some form of protest, some more provocative than others.

The demonstrations (both pro- and anti-China) and the subsequent clandestine efforts to change the routes to avoid protests have forced world leaders to tread carefully. They are engaged in a stressful game in which attendance at the opening ceremony is taken as that country’s ante in the game of diplomacy. Prime Minster Gordon Brown and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have had to account for their future absences, citing scheduling conflicts. Presidents Sarkozy and Merkel have openly discussed boycotting the ceremony to protest China’s poor human rights record. Within the United States elected representatives are vocally urging President Bush to follow the lead of France and Germany. Even Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC, has felt uncharacteristically compelled (Rogge’s previous statements very carefully skirted the issue of politics), to encourage the Chinese government to honour its “moral engagement” to improve human rights.

The fallout from the relay controversies has been immense. Some political commentators warn that the relay debacle is reinforcing the narrative of China’s subjugation at the hands of the Western world. In this context, since Free Tibet demonstrations are inherently interpreted as anti-China ones, protests to the Beijing Games are indicative of the West’s unwillingness to let China come into its own as an equal player on the world stage. The repercussions of this perception have affected even the world’s most successful commercial brands. French chains Carrefour and Louis Vuitton have been targeted for a Chinese boycott in response to President Sarkozy’s comments, the relay demonstrations, and the city of Paris awarding the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship. Western news channels, particularly CNN, have been accused of biased coverage of agitation in Tibet. American fast-food chains like McDonalds and KFC have come under fire from Chinese citizens because of Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi’s recent meeting with the Dalai Lama.

The political tension plaguing the Games also exacts a toll on its human participants. In the debates that have been raging about the appropriateness of politics mixing with what is essentially regarded as a sporting event, many have pointed out that the real losers in situations that dampen the spirit of the Games are the athletes who have spent lifetimes preparing for a chance to compete on their nation’s behalf. In this view, the Olympics is solely about setting aside differences—albeit temporarily—to emphasise world unity through competitive, though good-natured, sport. Although such attitudes are laudable for the idealism they put within humanity’s reach, they are wholly out of touch with the world as it actually is. As the history of the Olympic Games demonstrates quite well, separating politics from the Games is not a realistic expectation.

The IOC seems to recognise as much, and has worked to incorporate mechanisms into the Olympic Movement that deal with confronting this issue. In 1993 the IOC, with support from the UN, resurrected the ancient Olympic Truce. As the IOC’s website relates, the Truce was revived in recognition of “the global political reality in which sport and the Olympic Games exist”. The ultimate goal of the Truce is to protect athletes and sport while also contributing to “searching for peaceful and diplomatic solutions to the conflicts around the world.” To achieve these goals, the IOC uses the Truce to implement programmes that prompt political leaders “to act in favour of peace”; it undertakes humanitarian support in countries torn by war (such as HIV/AIDS and rehabilitation programmes); and it “establishes contacts between communities in conflict”. In other words, the stated objective of the IOC’s Olympic Truce is to “create a window of opportunities for dialogue, reconciliation and the resolution of conflicts [that]…extend[s] beyond the period of the Olympic Games.”

While such forays into the political sphere may seem incompatible with “the principle of universality and political neutrality of the Olympic Movement” (IOC Key Code of Ethics, E.1), issues of a political nature fall within the purview and purpose of the IOC, if not explicitly the Olympic Games, and are enshrined in the IOC’s Fundamental Principles of Olympism. Principle One defines Olympism as a “philosophy of life” that promotes, among other things, “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” while the second principle casts sport “at the service of the harmonious development of man” to ultimately advance a “peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. Sport alone, however, can only do so much. The paramount question, now, is whether the IOC is willing to use sport in a more productive way to actually reach its goals of bettering humanity.

Viewed in this light, the recent fallout surrounding the 2008 torch relay is perhaps not such a bad thing—that is, if only the tensions that have bubbled to the surface could be mediated in a better way through the IOC. This would require the IOC to come up with more concrete ways to handle the political controversies that erupt with almost every Olympics. It is important to remember that the demonstrators have real grievances; they aren’t just making a ruckus for nothing. There are people whose lives are being affected by China’s policies and poor human rights record, many with very little say in the matter. To write these activists off as anti-China hatemongers or muckrakers isn’t productive. Nor is it helpful to give China—or other nations that have a tendency to act irresponsibly in world affairs—immunity from criticism because of its status as Olympic host. On the other hand, nations and citizens with concerns about China’s behaviour should find more constructive methods of motivating China into reforming its human rights record. The Olympics will never help mankind towards unity so long as tit-for-tat boycotts and condemnation remain the norm. Clearly, a forum is needed, and the IOC, both in mission and in influence, is in a position to provide one. Although the IOC already hosts a forum to discuss how sport may inspire, but not impose peace, as well as community level UN partnerships to work on development through sport, their efforts are limited and do little to engage head on with human rights issues at an international level. It is time for the IOC to do more to encourage its participant nations to uphold the fundamental ethical principles espoused in its charter. In doing so, the IOC would surely accomplish a truly Olympic feat.

Peiling Li
Balliol College
24 April 2008

Copyright © 2008 Oxonian Review of Books