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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Politics and the Olympics

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There are actually some cranks grousing that politics should be kept out of the Olympics. But how are you ever going to keep world politics out of world politics? Anyone who thinks the Olympics represent some kind of pure athletic competition that is above politics hasn’t been paying attention for, oh, an entire lifetime.

Over the past 40 years of Olympics alone, we have seen hostages, bloody massacres, dueling U.S. and Soviet boycotts, drug scandals, brutal repression and officials being bribed with plastic surgery operations and free guns. Actually, the history of bribery of Olympic officials by sites under consideration raises the question of how many heavily armed trophy wives the selection of Beijing may have been worth.

Political repression aside, China is not exactly a natural fit as host of a strenuous athletic competition. The world’s athletes already are being warned to try to avoid breathing its heavily polluted air. But, in all likelihood, bribes weren’t even required to convince Olympic officials to look the other way regarding China’s human rights abuses and passive support of genocide in Darfur. With the corporatization of the Olympic Games in recent years, officials no doubt view China exactly the same way other corporate executives do: Human decency would be nice and all, but China is first and foremost a terrific market.

Still, it was a bit of an embarrassment when China kicked off its Olympics promotion by killing a few hundred people over Tibet. Even with China’s growing embrace of capitalism, leaders showed they still had a long way to go in perfecting corporate public relations when they tried to pin the violence on the smiling, peaceful Dalai Lama.

Suddenly, the reverent round-the-world running of the Olympic torch has turned into something very different. Angry protesters turn out to extinguish the flame and throw water balloons. The route of the sacred Olympic torch is abruptly changed to avoid crowds. Even when the torch does pass unscathed, it has to be protected by a phalanx of bodyguards running alongside.

Bush’s Continued Support
All three major candidates for the presidency in 2008—Republican John McCain as well as Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—have suggested that President George Bush shouldn’t attend the opening ceremony in Beijing.

Other major world leaders have not hesitated to take the simple moral stand of staying away from the opening ceremony to protest China’s blatant pre- Olympics barbarism. They include British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. With bipartisan opposition at home and a growing number of civilized nations abroad boycotting the ceremony, it’s curious why Bush so far remains determined to attend. Perhaps Bush is so used to acting arrogantly and unilaterally without any support from anyone else that he doesn’t recognize a common cause on behalf of human rights when he sees one.

Because the Bush administration engages in so many human rights violations of its own, including torture and holding prisoners for years in gulags without any charges or legal rights, perhaps the U.S. president doesn’t want to encourage organized opposition to crimes against humanity.

But, most likely, Bush is just doing what he usually does, which is whatever the wealthiest people in America tell him to do. That includes cozying up to the biggest and most profitable market in the world, no matter how bloodthirsty and repressive its government may be.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union used the Olympics as a peaceful substitute for a shooting war. In this country, we proudly honored our wholesome, red-blooded American medal winners and ridiculed Soviet bloc champions, especially the females, as fat cross-dressers.

Ironically, it was one of our most moral presidents, Jimmy Carter, who escalated the unhealthy, nationalistic zeal over the Olympic Games. Carter probably sealed his re-election defeat when he boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, holding U.S. athletes out of the competition to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

That led to the Soviet Union and East Germany boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation. As a reporter, I was sent into Milwaukee bars to document how sports fans would react to the United States crushing tiny, unknown countries with names that sounded like synthetic fabrics.

The cheers were deafening. Since George Bush was hanging around bars in those days, that’s probably what shaped his enthusiasm for starting wars against small countries that were absolutely no threat to the United States. Now that the Olympics have become a multibillion-dollar television show with corporate sponsorships for every jockstrap and energy drink, there’s no way President Bush is going to be bothered by China shooting a few political protesters.

We failed to attract much of the world to our dirty, little war. Now there’s a peaceful, worldwide, moral protest going on without us.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

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