A Sporting Chance: Why the Olympics is a Perfect Arena for Protest

April 11, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

China likes to paint itself as a victim. The only English language channel, CCTV, plays daily documentaries about the Japanese occupation and their inherent cruelty. A total boycott of the Games would play right into their hands and prove to its citizens that the world is ganging up on it, completely unprovoked, and its reaction would be petulant, at best. It is also unfair on athletes, not least Chinese ones. Protests of the kind in London and Paris this week are an effective way of signalling disapproval with the limited tools ordinary citizens have-public displays and symbols.

China’s Olympics is fair game

China’s achievement of lifting millions out of poverty is not to be sniffed at, but the argument that sports and politics should not mix, and that protesting at the torch run is unsportsmanlike, (“vile misdeeds”, they called it) does not wash. Athletic competitions have long been an arena for the continuation of politics by other means. The torch run through Tibet, for example, is blatant political posturing and the Olympics itself is being used by China to show its citizens that the one-party government has international legitimacy. The torch run itself, long abandoned, was revived by Germany in 1936 as a symbol of the Nazi party’s perceived ideological and cultural link with ancient Greek civilisation. The torch was carried through the Balkans in 1936 to signal its new power over the region (the region would be invade shortly afterwards). You can also bet that the amount of medals won by China and the US in August is going to be very significant indeed.

The Olympics are a truly international event and protesting is one of the only avenues people have to draw attention to various issues – be it the oppression of Falun Gong followers, imprisoned journalists and human rights activists, the Tibetan issue, Darfur, and of course media censorship. Once the Olympics is over, China will continue to go about its business of becoming a superpower. While public protests might not do much good in the long run, they will show countries in the future that if they have skeletons in their closet, they will encounter international murmurings of disapproval and a PR disaster at the very least. The current international actions might also make the International Olympic Committee (IOC) more careful to select, in future, host countries with better human rights records, and reduce the likelihood that the Games will be awarded to a country with dubious credentials. Because, like it or not, the country will interpret the awarding of the Games as tacit international approval.

Is it unfair that China is losing face in this manner? We can’t pretend that our own hard-fought and imperfect liberal democracies don’t have blood on their hands, or that feudal Tibet was a utopia. And of course the British government’s collusion in keeping working conditions in China poor and preventing workers from forming trade unions means we can’t expect our officials to speak up in the way the mayor of Paris and various other officials did, with banners and marches that caused the torch run to be cancelled. There will be protests in 2012 for Britain’s involvement in Iraq, but what China is purposefully overlooking is that many people are protesting its treatment of its own people as well as its international actions, while the government is trying to paint protesters as misfits with an irrational and catch-all Sinophobia. It is very unlikely that, in 2012, people will protest about how the UK treats its citizens, even accounting for the increasing erosion of civil liberties at home – its foreign policy will be the main target.

However, even if we were to draw a line under the past and forget China’s appalling human rights regime, giving it a chance to make the fresh start which was the admirable aim of the IOC in the first place, the media censorship in recent weeks is the tip of an iceberg which on its own would be unacceptable. It is China’s tough luck that we now live in an unprecedented climate of human rights concern coupled with more access to information. Of course, in 1936 this was not the case, and human rights law was not codified in any serious manner until after World War 2.

There is an international spirit of ethics laid out in the Olympic charter, and Beijing made certain campaign promises to win the 2008 bid. The most important of these was an improved human rights record and free media access to journalists. The IOC says it cannot get involved in the recent events, despite the fact that China’s actions contravene explicit promises Beijing made to IOC officials as a condition for being awarded the 2008 Games. Countries need to know that if they get the Olympics they will be under close scrutiny.

The host nation is given the Games as a token of its support for the Olympic charter and its commitment to fair play, and as such it is subject to certain ethical obligations, sporting and otherwise, as a member of the international community. Awarding the Games to Seoul in 1988 had a positive impact on South Korea’s development, but China has shown that it has not fulfilled its promises and, even more, that it does not really care.

It is important that, in the small avenue that we have been given, we signal disapproval. Countries like Saudi Arabia that become rich and powerful without social development (in this case through a resources jackpot) become like fortresses, totally invulnerable to world opinion (when was the last time the House of Saud wrung its hands over its international reputation?). This is the only chance to show China that the world is indeed watching, and even without all the other issues, media blackouts are unacceptable.

‘Everyone else is doing it so why can’t we’

The Games are barely four months away, and it does not look likely that China will allow the media freedom it has promised. China has an obligation to the IOC to provide open internet access for the 30,000 journalists expected to cover the games, Kevan Gosper, vice-chairman of the IOC Co-ordinating Commission, said on Tuesday.

Blocking the web during the games “would reflect very poorly” on Beijing, Mr Gosper said, drawing attention to criticism of China closing down internet access during last month’s unrest in Tibet.

Concerns over internet access were among issues raised on Tuesday by the IOC in talks with the Beijing organising committee. “This morning we discussed and insisted [on access] again,” said Mr Gosper. “Our concern is that the press is able to operate as it has at previous Games.” However, the IOC said that, so far, access for the media was not yet provided “and it was still on the table for discussion”.

Beijing had given clear assurances that the required access would be delivered, the IOC said, “but operationally, it isn’t up to the mark yet”. Jiang Yu, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, said she acknowledged that China banned some internet content, but said other countries did the same. She declined to say if the internet would be unrestricted for journalists during the Games. This excuse is an almost contemptuously childish attempt to deflect attention from China’s own media crackdown.

Our media coverage is of course not perfect either, but it does not even bear comparison with the total control and imprisonment of ‘critics’ that China is attempting. And what of these ‘other countries?’ To whom are they referring? The Open Net Initiative, made up of research groups at the universities of Toronto, Harvard Law School, Oxford and Cambridge, conducted a study in 2007 to find out which countries had government controls on the internet. Burma, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan and Uzbekistan were on the list along with China. None of these countries are likely to get the Games any time soon, and if they did the protests would be even louder. China can’t have it both ways. They can’t agree to make changes as a condition for hosting the Games and then renege on the promises because ‘other countries do it too’.

It is a good idea to find Games hosts that are not in the old boys’ club of international politics, and having the world’s attention after decades of isolation can be a good thing. The IOC said in 2001 that awarding Beijing the Olympics would have a positive impact on human rights in the country as it would be forced to change under the spotlight of world attention, but this change has not materialised. As Human Rights Watch said when Beijing was awarded the Games: “We think that the human rights record of a country should be taken into serious consideration by the International Olympic Committee in selecting the site for the 2008 Olympics, but we are not opposed a priori to China getting the Games. Experience with the 1995 UN Women’s Conference in Beijing has shown that having thousands of people from around the world in China can focus attention on the country, including on the degree of state control and fear of political protest.”

Protesting is the only way international attention is going to be a positive thing, and if it does not bring about changes, it will at least let China know that the world has not entirely been fooled. This is a one-time chance to attract international attention at a truly international event, and in line with the IOC’s stated aim of effecting changes by awarding the Games. After the Olympics, this avenue might be closed forever.

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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle

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