by Joel VanDixhorn | Will Olympic glare convince China to change its ways?
Throughout history, the Olympic games have served various purposes for different nations. From glorifying gods to supposedly demonstrating racial superiority to engendering good will among all men, these worldwide athletic competitions have sprinkled history’s pages with inspirational stories, heart-wrenching violence and political drama. The 2008 Beijing Olympics could very likely possess all three of these characteristics. The Tibetan struggle against the central Chinese government has intensified as the games draw near, and the world is starting to take notice. Also, lingering questions regarding China’s relationship with the Sudanese government have caused embarrassment. This past year, Steven Spielberg resigned from his position as artistic advisor to the Olympics in protest of China’s inaction. With many countries threatening to boycott at least the opening ceremonies, the US decision regarding attendance will be closely scrutinized.
Politically charged Olympic games are nothing new. The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin occurred during the height of Nazi reign, and Hitler intended to use the games to showcase the Aryan race. In one of the most awe-inspiring performances in Olympic history, Jesse Owens, a black American track and field athlete, won four gold medals and seriously damaged the Aryan façade of invincibility. Another ideological struggle, the Cold War, placed a shadow over practically every Olympic competition from 1952 to 1988. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow have the distinction of being boycotted by the most nations in Olympic history. Led by President Carter, the US and 61 other countries did not participate, citing the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The controversy surrounding the Beijing Olympics is multifaceted and has created a broad coalition of political activists intent on using the spotlight of Olympic competition to highlight politically and socially repugnant facets of the Chinese government. The most high-profile topic at the moment is Chinese treatment of the Tibetan people, who seek more autonomy from the government. A multitude of clashes have left scores of Tibetan and Han Chinese alike dead. This has heightened awareness of China’s oppressive stance towards the media. Numerous reports have highlighted the danger that journalists face and the level of internet censorship in China. A holdover issue that still dogs the government is the fact that China is the biggest purchaser of Sudanese oil, which has helped to fund military operations. Fittingly enough, China is one of Sudan’s biggest arms suppliers, creating a symbiotic relationship.
The world reaction to all these issues has been strong. Numerous celebrities, politicians, and organizations have voiced their outrage. Some people have done more than just vocally express their disapproval and have attempted to physically derail the Olympic torch. Protestors around the world have tried to extinguish the Olympic torch (literally) and block the path of runners carrying the torch. Dozens of arrests have been made in Paris, London, as well as other places through which the torch has passed.
US politicians have recently gotten in on the act, as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony. Clinton accused Bush of “downplay[ing] human rights in its policy towards China.” Up to this point, Bush has remained noncommittal regarding his presence at any of the ceremonies. It is certainly unclear what effect a boycott would actually have on China. Many believe that the public embarrassment would spur reforms within the country, but it is hard to reasonably expect the Olympic games to muster more influence than nuclear arsenals and trillions of dollars. Many nations possess both of these assets yet have been unable to notably affect Chinese actions in the past decade.
While the option for President Bush to call for a complete boycott is still on the table, it would be the wrong decision. Though politics inevitably invades each Olympics, or any international competition for that matter, people must remember that another component exists. The Olympics provide an opportunity for the best athletes in the world to showcase their talents in front of a global audience. Most of these athletes have devoted years of their lives to honing a single talent to be demonstrated once every four years. If the athletes want to show their indignation with regard to China’s dirtied human rights and free speech record, they are more than welcome to abstain from participation. In fact, it would be a much stronger statements if hundreds of individuals made the choice to boycott the Olympics as opposed to a single leader making an overarching decision. Also, other than symbolic effects, the main consequence of a boycott is to generate publicity. If anything can be said for sure, it is that difficulties in China have not gone unreported. A boycott would be a petty attempt to embarrass China but would most likely induce little change.
Regardless of Bush’s decision, in six months the world will watch with bated breath as thousands of competitors perform in stunning displays of athleticism. For every medal won, a column will be written about China’s struggle to develop politically and economically. And maybe we should leave it at that.
Mr. VanDixhorn is a junior majoring in Economics and Political Science.