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You can’t blame director Steven Spielberg for bowing out of the opening ceremony for this summer’s Beijing Olympics to protest China’s oil ties to Sudan, a country whose Darfur region has been subjected to massive human rights abuses. Certainly the director of Munich, which chronicled the killings of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games, has a unique understanding of how the Olympics can turn into a flash point for politics.
But is it always wise to use the games for political reasons? Despite Hitler’s efforts to showcase his beliefs in Aryan superiority via the Olympics, African American Jesse Owens stole the show by winning four gold medals in track and field. What if Owens had stayed home? Would the Holocaust have been averted? Probably not.
Carl Lewis, however, didn’t get the opportunity to take home any medals at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, though he did distinguish himself in later Games. Lewis was one of many athletes denied the chance to compete after President Jimmy Carter led a boycott of the Games to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.
While Carter has done much to advance the cause of human rights since leaving the White House, saying nyet to the Moscow Olympics served as a low point of his Administration. Using the Olympics as a political football defeats the purpose of the Games.
It’s a given that any country hosting the Games is going to employ them as a vehicle to promote the nation’s achievements and political viewpoints, but these types of efforts by traditionally oppressive regimes sometimes include more-humanitarian treatment of citizens.
Still, individuals such as Steven Spielberg are free to remain on the sidelines. But it would be a shame if the Hollywood coterie used its clout to put a political damper on this summer’s Beijing Olympics. Too many athletes have been training all their lives for this event; too many families have sacrificed. The Russians didn’t leave Afghanistan because the U.S. boycotted the Olympics. They left because they lost.
If opinion-makers want China out of Sudan, they’d be better off organizing a boycott of cheap consumer goods made in China with oil imported from Africa. Hey, Bono, are you listening?
Using the Olympics to make political statements can be a valid and legitimate activity, and a boycott, under some circumstances, might be warranted.
In the case of the Beijing Olympics, however, Darfur advocates believe a boycott of the 2008 Games would punish athletes. And for this reason, among others, Dream for Darfur (along with the majority of the Darfur advocacy community) recommends that no nation or sponsor should withdraw from the Beijing Olympics.
As to whether the Games should be “politicized,” that question is moot. Awarding the Games to Beijing was, in and of itself, a political act. Beijing is using the Olympics as a political tool—to burnish its image on the world stage despite its abysmal human rights record abroad and its oppression of its own citizens.
This makes accusations from Beijing that Darfur advocates are “politicizing” the Olympics cynical—even hypocritical, especially because Beijing has long employed the Games as a blunt political weapon against Taiwan. Starting in 1956, China withdrew from the Melbourne Games in protest at the inclusion of the Taiwanese delegation and took similar actions over subsequent decades. In 1980 China joined a boycott of the Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
At stake with the 2008 games is the very image of the Olympics itself and whether the international community—including athletes—will let China damage the Games by turning the event into just another propaganda tool. China will be serving as the Olympic host and the underwriter of the Darfur genocide at the same time. This violates the Olympic spirit, especially because Beijing is in a unique position to halt the suffering.
Raising such issues publicly does not harm athletes. Ask athletes—they think the Olympics mean something. And athletes know the games do not only belong to them. The Olympics constitute one of the few international institutions people still believe in. They make a valid forum for talking about the behavior of governments, especially in light of the current Olympic host’s complicity in an ongoing genocide in Darfur.
If we are going to talk about politics and harming athletes, we should start the conversation with this in mind.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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