Forget the fun and games

The Berlin Olympics was a major victory for Hitler. The Chinese are hoping to match that success.

tobin 88 (photo credit:)
tobin 88
(photo credit: )
If there's anything that sports fans hate, it's somebody using a political cause to spoil their pleasures. Sports are sports, and politics is politics. That's the message from the international sports establishment and just about every government in the world, including the United States, regarding the upcoming Olympics to be held this summer in Beijing. The calls for boycotts or protests against the host country because of their savage repression in Tibet and support of a genocidal regime in Sudan have, more or less, fallen on deaf ears. Despite the supposedly universal abhorrence for the ongoing mass murder in Sudan and the general sympathy for the people of Tibet - not to mention admiration for the Dalai Llama, their leader in exile - there appears to be little question that the 29th modern Olympiad will go on as scheduled in the capital city of the People's Republic of China. Indeed, President Bush, who has staked his reputation on an effort to bring democracy to the world, will be in China for the opening ceremonies as a gesture of friendship to Beijing, which will, as other nations have in the past, use the games as the centerpiece of a propaganda offensive. THE OLYMPICS are an institution that has been largely impervious to the demands of morality. A huge business in and of itself, the Olympics generates a great deal of income for a variety of vendors, especially TV networks that count on the event to generate ratings around the world. Moreover, we are told that any attempt to disrupt the games will not help anyone in China, Tibet or the Sudan. Rather, it is argued, the only victims of a protest will be the athletes who have trained diligently for years and have earned the right to their moment in the sun without having it tarnished or stolen from them for reasons that have nothing to do with sport. The only times that the games have been disrupted have been when they come up against the demands of state, such as the world wars and the U.S.-Soviet dispute over Afghanistan that affected the 1980 and 1984 games. But desultory attempts to protest the 1936 Berlin Olympics got nowhere since the democracies were at that time more interested in appeasing the Nazis than in confronting them. With that precedent in mind, there's no reason to think that a rag-tag coalition of nudniks and activists who care about Sudan or Tibet, or even the few who give a damn about the fact that the Beijing government brutally represses their own people, will succeed. Still, in February, the protest movement got a boost when filmmaker Steven Spielberg pulled out of a commitment to be an artistic adviser to the games because of his support for efforts to force Beijing to stop supporting the government of Sudan, as well as evading the international sanctions that have sought to pressure Khartoum. A month later, the Chinese suffered another public-relations debacle when news leaked out of Tibet of their ruthless smashing of protests in that country against Chinese measures to suppress Tibetan national identity and religion. Though the Chinese have largely junked the socialist model and opened up their economy, power remains in the hands of the Communist party. The creation of vast wealth for some has led to a new openness in the country, but it has strict limits that make any sort of dissent dangerous. Though it is rarely discussed in the foreign press, the laogai - the Chinese version of the Soviets' Gulag Archipelago - is still very much in operation, even if it is not as vast as in the past. Economic ties between the West and China have never been greater. This economic leverage resulted in the United States lifting the necessity of yearly congressional approval for most favored nation trading status several years ago, a step that had the effect of virtually silencing labor and human-rights activists who had, until then, at least been able to have an annual forum for exposing Chinese perfidy. Since then, China's economic power has only grown. The fact that investments there are endangered by the absence of the rule of law has not deterred major corporations, as well as media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch, who has junked his anti-Communist beliefs for a share of the loot he's gotten from a close relationship with Beijing. Critics of Olympic protests also say that boycott efforts will only inflame Chinese public opinion and strengthen the Communist leadership. Since the games are seen as a major boost for the delicate national self-esteem of China, if they are spoiled, the people will blame the West, not their tyrannical bosses. Sadly, their nation's behavior in Tibet is believed to be popular because it is seen as an expression of Chinese nationalism. But despite all of this, the imperative to speak out is clear. China may be a rising world power, but it should be disabused of the notion that it can do as it likes without being accountable. As for Tibet, it may be difficult, if not impossible right now, to imagine that county ever regaining its freedom, but the same could have been said of the Soviets' hold on the enslaved nations of the Baltic 25 years ago. The Tibetans and the Dalai Llama have a right to expect free people to hold faith with them the same as we once did with those in Eastern Europe a generation ago. The fact that China is actively engaged in religious persecution in Tibet, as well as within its own borders (of nonstate authorized churches and mosques) also makes this an issue that Jews cannot ignore. Though the odds of success here seem long, a Jewish community that claims to care about human rights in other situations cannot remain silent about China. Some fear that protests over Tibet will legitimize the effort to delegitimize Israel because of its conflict with the Palestinians. Still, there is no comparison between a tiny country defending its borders against a portion of the vastly more numerous Arab people that wishes to destroy the Jewish state and the spectacle of a vast power eradicating the ancient nation of Tibet. Nor is there any comparison between this and America's overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. Finally, let us dispose of the claim that politics should not disrupt sports. The Olympics, with its flag-waving and anthems, are, by definition a political event. Myths about 1936 aside, the Berlin Olympics was a major victory for Hitler, not his opponents. The Chinese are hoping to match that success. This year, as in Munich in 1972, when the games were considered more important than the slaughter of Israelis, the athletes will still be the pawns of tyrants more than anything else. The summer Olympics present an opportunity for those who care about human rights to illustrate that even China is not exempt from scrutiny. The competition is not more important than the fate of Darfur, Tibet or even of dissenters in China itself. Bush should stay home this summer. So should everyone. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. jtobin@jewishexponent.com.