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The Olympics and Political Games

Aug 9, 2008
With news stories focusing on human rights abuse, terrorism, air pollution and doping, it seems that the Olympics are not what they once were. The long-awaited Beijing Olympic Games finally begin this Friday but can they transcend the politics? Can we still be touched by the Olympic spirit?

Growing up in the 1980s, my Olympic heroes were Coe, Ovett and Cram, Carl Lewis, Daley Thompson, and Torvill and Dean. I loved the story of Jesse Owens versus the Nazis and even our feeble Eddie the Eagle pulled at the heartstrings. Into the 1990s and beyond, Redgrave, Pinsent and Co were proper Olympians with Kelly Holmes and Amir Khan providing some inspirational Olympic stories in 2004.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking out for our men's fours rowing team and little Tom Daley, diving for team GB at just 14 years old. But repression of political activists, detention without trial - featuring the scary Re-education Through Labour (RTL) scheme - and censorship in China are unfortunately overshadowing the competition for me and many others at the moment.

This is a great shame for the athletes involved but actually nothing new. Politics have been prominent in the Olympic Games since 1936 when Hitler hijacked them as a piece of Nazi propaganda. Happily, black athletes like the American Jesse Owens were there to dispel the myth of Aryan supremacy.

The 1956 Olympics held in Melbourne, Australia were boycotted by various nations for numerous reasons and 1968 saw the volatile Mexico City games. Two black American medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the black power salute during the United States anthem and were subsequently expelled from the games. Student protesters also tried to use the Olympics to raise awareness of the authoritarian Mexican government.

Tragically, this ultimately culminated in the gunning down of more than 200 protesters by government forces in October 1968, just days before the games began. It emerged many years later that the US government had supported the Mexican authorities with weapons, ammunition, radios and riot control training in an attempt to prevent disruption to the Olympic Games.

The Munich games in 1972 were hijacked by Palestinian terrorists, with eleven Israeli athletes being kidnapped and eventually killed. Hard to imagine how the Olympics could recover from such a shocking event.

In 1976 the Olympics in Montreal were riddled with boycotts, drug allegations and debts. The 1980 Olympics saw the largest boycott ever with the United States and 61 other countries refusing to enter the games in protest against the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan. In response, the USSR, East Germany, Cuba and 14 other nations boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Incidentally, this was the first Olympic games for the People's Republic of China.

Numerous countries around the world have been close to boycotting the Beijing Games, but so far it does not look like this will happen. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) granted Beijing the games in July 2001 under the proviso that human rights in China would improve. Many people believe that the Olympics can be used as a positive political force, citing the banning of South Africa between 1964 and 1992. They believe that this was instrumental in forcing the country to allow black and white athletes to participate together in national sport, a significant step towards equal rights and the end of the oppressive apartheid regime.

According to Amnesty International's website, Liu Jingmin, Vice-President of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Bid Committee said in April 2001:

"By allowing Beijing to host the Games you will help the development of human rights."

Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC declared at the time:

"We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve the human rights record in China."

In April 2008 Rogge had to remind the Chinese government of their commitment to human rights and ask them to respect it. Only time will tell if they do so.

Over the last twenty years or so, scandals involving perfomance-enhancing drugs have probably eclipsed the political Olympic storms. This has added to the negativity surrounding the Olympic Games and perhaps means that the audience is now more cynical and less impressed than in the old days.

But the majority of the athletes participating in the Olympics have legitimately reached the pinnacle of their sport and deserve our respect. Why not put aside our concerns and cynicism once the opening ceremony starts and just enjoy the thing? Accept that politics are part and parcel of any event involving the nations of the world, and ignore it. Why not let the Chinese people be proud of their athletes and their culture? Why not celebrate outstanding human achievement? Why not let the Olympics bring us together, just for a few weeks?
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