The Olympics: Chuck the Politics

Using the event to make political statements wrongs blameless athletes. Pro or con?

Pro: Don’t Disrupt and Deprive

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?

Con: It’s Already Politicized

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.

Reader Comments

jason

With no offense to director Steven, one of the most beloved men on earth, I just can't agree with his behavior, and I am proud and shamed by the movements that aim to improve the situation in Sudan while resisting the Beijing Olympics. Steven's leaving is his rational choice after his rational thinking. Most people make choices based on rational thinking or weighing the benefits and the losses. Let's assume what Steven might think about before his resignation: lost contribution to the world's greatest fair, Chinese people's potential criticism or even refusing of his future works, and athletes' misunderstanding. Benefits include showing the world that he is someone who cares about the world so badly, Hollywood protestors' adoration, and NGO's reputation.

Steven might be standing on the wrong side: Quitting the job is not helpful to improving the situation in Darfur at all. Politics is not about mores or morale or charity. It is all about interests. Every four years in the last 15 years, American government has incurred wars in different regions under the banner of "freedom," "liberty," or "human rights." Okay, America wins every war. However, it announces that region's "freedom" at the cost of what--deaths of millions of people (what about their human rights)? including the American soldiers, the chaotic situation in that region as well as masses living in poverty. So I am very confused by the Hollywood protestors and other protestors who are anti-Sino Olympics. Why didn't they wear shirts that read "genocide America"? Because that's ridiculous. That does not lead to the bilateral-win situation.

Therefore, all the protestors of the world, please lower your banners and stop protesting. We together can do something effective or more meaningful. We will and must urge the governments with interests in Darfur including China, America, and EU to do something useful for the people there. We must urge them to pull up a plan or model to bring them more interests as well as the interest in the local. But we shouldn't do it or fulfill it via the Olympics, and we know, as well as the people of the world know, that doesn't work and is not appropriate.

Warren

If the reason for Steven's quitting is that he really found his conscience on the Darfur issue, I want to say that he found his conscience too late. Why didn't he find it earlier? If he cares about people in Darfur so much, why doesn't he urge the U.S. and Europe, like he did China? He is a hypocrite.

random

The bigger question here is what aren't we willing to poison with politics? Is there nothing left sacred enough to forgo becoming a circus of protests, counter-protests, and bitter accusations? If you bombard people will a thousand causes and stain everything with a political campaign, the audience suffering from political overload will simply deadpan "yeah, tragic, horrible, a real shame...now let's watch the high dive," in reply.

Is this the reaction Dream for Darfur wants? And what about genocide in Somalia, religious violence in Iraq, oppression in Burma, terrorism in Afghanistan, war in Israel and Palestine, poverty in Bangladesh, and all the other places where things are bad? Should they also form groups and use every single international event out there to protest or demand something from governments?

In our overpoliticized, problem-fatigued and troubled world, is there no place we can get away from the constant protests and angry sermons of activists?

Dante

The Olympics have always been political. All the way back to when the Greeks started it. Why change now? It's the fundamental "spirit" of the Olympics.

Jana

China boycotted the 1984 games in Moscow, citing political reasons. If you asked one athlete if by boycotting the games, it would save even one person's life, would they do it? I think and hope most would say yes. Would there be any kudos winning medals on blood-stained soil--where 5 kilometers down the road thousands of untried Chinese live in slave labor camps?

Be angry at the IOC who have sold out to the big money and the sponsors who all want a piece of the action in China's economic miracle built on the backs of slaves. Boycott the Olympics because it's corrupt, and the sports people need to know this and make their own free decisions. Would you want to visit or compete in a country where forced organ-harvesting happens to innocent live people? You will be remembered for it forever.

Read the report about the Chinese Communist regime committing live forced organ harvesting to the peaceful Falun Gong practitioners and selling their organs for large money to rich foreigners. http://organharvestinvestigation.net/

Crimes Against Humanity and the Olympics cannot co-exist in China.

Some truths are intolerable,
Our governments know about it,
Our media know about it,
Human rights organizations know about it,
Now you know about it.

Please do something now.

YinduAsan

Technical correction for the article: Steven Spielberg had never signed any contract with Beijing or any party in China for the artistic consultant position. So, calling it "quit Olympics for protest" is simply preposterous. With this in mind, isn't it so obvious that the media and Farrow gangs were obviously acting a Hollywood-style play they conducted by themselves?

John

@Jana
"China boycotted the 1984 games in Moscow, citing political reasons." Don't twist that, Jana. The Moscow Olympics boycott was called by America. And it was in 1980, not 1984, if that's enough to show your ignorance. I can't bother replying to the rest of your drivel.

grouchy

Do Steven and Mia know that 11 million children are dying every year needlessly? This number could be greatly reduced if governments (U.S., EU, etc.) lived up to their commitments to provide 0.7% of their GDP to poor countries, but bashing China gives them more publicity. Do they ask who is arming the rebels or how the Civil War started? These people measure their worth by how much publicity they can garner, not knowing they are just third-rate human beings

CW

If China is as bad as Jana claimed, I wonder why President Bush is still saying he'll be attending the Beijing Olympics soon after Spielberg called it quits. Is he so ill-informed or is he just looking the other way? There are many articles and reports accusing Chinese officials of various "crimes" within and outside its territory, some of which are true and some are false. There are many anti-China groups like the Falun Gong and Taiwan-government funded organizations fabricating stories every day to slander China. Falun Gong is publishing its free daily newspaper all over North America and Asia (I don't know about Europe because I haven't been there) badmouthing China. (One may wonder where they get the money.) We should look for different views and filter what we read to determine what is true and what is false in order not to inadvertently become a tool of those with special intentions. Poverty in China caused some people to sell their organs and blood (and resulted in a lot of HIV infections) and flock to cities to work at wages and benefits lower than those paid city people themselves but much higher than what they can earn in their home villages if they could find a job at all. They are similar to those Latinos working in the farms and restaurants in this country. Yes, they are exploited, but they are not slaves. There are also a lot of injustices in China caused by corruption. However, I don't think boycotting the Beijing Olympics will solve these problems.

YinduAsan

I watched an investigative documentary the other day that was to verify the human organ-harvest stories in China. It turned out the claims by the Falun Gong were totally false. The story was made up by a former Canadian prime minister and another anti-China Canadian lawyer.

John

Jana, the problem with rhetoric--especially rhetoric lacking facts, data, or anything that can be verified by anyone--is that it always comes out sounding hollow and stupid. It sounds like you were brainwashed, like you needed a pet cause, and this is it. "Isn't China horrible? They're taking over their world with their hard work and money and ingenuity and remarkable ability to adapt to a global market 50 years more advanced than their infrastructure!" Freaks! They must be on steroids or using rampant slavery. There is no other explanation, right?

In the past decade, the average yearly wage for China has doubled. And 1.3 billion people. Doubled. Brought out from under the poverty line. It is the largest, fastest accumulation of wealth in history. Yes, many Chinese are getting very wealthy very quickly, and that is always unsettling. It always implies corruption, crime, or something underhanded. And yet what is more important, and I think, not talked about enough, is just how many lives in China have been drastically improved.

Skepticism is one thing; it's great. Fear isn't.

Just thought I would reiterate one thing: Rhetoric makes one sound pedantic, simple-minded, and frankly, stupid. I encourage you to do more research and re-post.

P.S. I live in Beijing, working as part of the big, scary, evil "corporate machine" that is "cashing in on China." I've been here around a year, and I've traveled around the city quite a bit, so I have a quick question. Where is that slave labor camp 5 kilometers away? I haven't seen it on my trips around town. Maybe it's invisible. Also, avoid the naysayers; punctuation is cool.

Jana

Sorry you do not have the access to correct information in China, John.

You're right about 1980, but China also joined the boycott, citing political reasons. See wilkipedia if you can access it, of course.

Did any of you read the report about the Chinese Communist regime committing live forced organ-harvesting on the peaceful Falun Gong practitioners and selling their organs for big money to rich foreigners?
http://organharvestinvestigation.net/

Read it before you make such ill-informed reports. Access the news reports on the site, if you can, and see if these make any sense to you as well.
The third link is corroborating studies to the two official reports, which are independent from these studies.
http://organharvestinvestigation.net/events.htm
http://organharvestinvestigation.net/events/Fact_sheet_Amnesty.pdf
http://organharvestinvestigation.net/studies.htm
http://organharvestinvestigation.net/media-eng.htm

Paul Mattingly

As a somewhat chronologically challenged individual, I remember what is probably the defining moment in Olympic political action. It happens to be the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Like it or not, it made a statement. However, the thing I am watching is not what happens during the games but what happens in China and with China after the event is over. Things are fairly quiet on that stage, because the Chinese want to garner all the attention and revenue that these games present. Not to mention the covert opportunities that will, no doubt, exist. After the games are over, what then?

John

@jana
I am actually not the same person as the one who wrote from China. I don't have to refer to Wikipedia because I am old enough to remember that event. America called for the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. As many as 62 countries joined in the American-led boycott. China was one of these 62 countries, being at that time aligned with the West.

I doubt those links that you posted are going to convince many people. My advice is don't be too eager to believe anything with an anti-China bias.

Rupert Tsang

I am wondering how many people writing comments here live or have ever lived in China. I've lived here since 2001, and I have to agree with the boycott of the games. China as a nation is not ready to host such an event. Here are some examples why:

1. If you look at the material the Communist Party is using to promote the games in China, they are very close to posters the Nazis used in the 1930s. Most of them not showing sports, but showing military personal.

2. The workers who have been working on the sites of the games have no rights whatsoever. The workers come from the countryside, spend one year away from there families, and are supposed to get paid every six months. Some of them have been working now for two years without any pay. The promised wage by the government was supposed to be 2,000 rmb a month (around $220 U.S.), but in the majority of cases it was 350 rmb (around $45 U.S.).

3. In the last four months, people who have been speaking publicly against the games have been either put under house arrest until September, 30, 2008, or sent to labor camps, or in the case of a teacher at Beijing Normal University, Liu Xio just vanished from his home by Public Security, beaten up, sent to jail, in court for 90 minutes, then sent to Hebei Province and shot.

4. Millions of people who have lived in Beijing for years had their homes taken away and were only given 20% of the market value, and then given new homes 80 kilometers away from the city where they lived for years.

5. Public security showing up at people's homes and arresting because they were blogging on Web sites that go against the ideals of the Communist Party.

6. From the start of the cultural revolution in the mid 1960s until it ended in the late 1970s, 5 million people from Tibet were killed, and more than 20 million in the rest of the country.

7. The Communist Party's official line on June 4, 1989, was only two people were killed, and they were both solders. It was more like 1,000 civilians were killed, and more than 20 solders. And in the weeks after June 4, 1989, more than 2 million people were rounded up and sent to death, with another 100,000 sent to labor camps.

The list goes on and on. My reason for boycotting the games is part China and part IOC for ever giving the games. I work for a motorcycle company in Beijing, and I decided that during the games, I will leave. Also because I could see myself doing the same as if it were the 1936 games.

Jana

Re John, you need to grow up and accept that China is run by unelected brutal dictators whose only excuse is "We have to rule this way to keep control of 1.3 billion people." When people have basic rights such as freedom of thought and expression, especially the Chinese people, and you will have a great nation.

Although I do admit that China needs a good cleaning out of all the officials and workers for the Ccp who are corrupt. And this will happen when the regime falls, and it will fall. As for dismissing countless news and media reports in the links I provided up above, then you have shown you have no aspiration for the very best in China and no smarts at all.

Re Rupert, thank you, thank you for having the good moral sense to confirm what many are also understanding inside China and outside Communist China.

Noah

Why would both the UN and an independent Canadian MP investigation and the vice-president of the European Union's personal investigation all conclude that the organ harvesting is going on? The UN is not anti-China. Boycott may not be the answer, but to deny the abuses is just blind. Thanks for the report links, Jana. They actually are very well documented. It seems people have already forgotten the brick-kiln slaves that made headlines some months back as well.

Magnuson

As to the slave labor camps: It is well documented that China admittedly used hundreds of forced labor camps. The Masanjia is one of the more notorious. Many, if not most, of the prisoners are political or religious. They can be legally held for years without trial and are commonly used by the camps to fill orders for foreign companies making textiles, toys, etc. Forced labor without pay equals slave labor. Look up "forced labor reeducation camps." This will inform you that there are in fact slave labor camps within most major cities in China.

john

Jana,
You already made yourself non-credible in the first place by saying that "5 kilometers down the road thousands of untried Chinese live in slave labor camps." John from China already told you there's no such thing. Why should we believe the rest of your claims?

As for Rupert Tsang, he claims that he lives in China, and then proceeds to give a list of the same tired cliche accusations and lies against China, none of which actually needs him to be in China to come up with.

Actually, many of the organ-harvesting allegations are spread by members of Falun Gong (which I suspect some of the posters are), an organization with an ax to grind against China. There is actually, a country in South Asia where real organ harvesting has been taking place for a long time (where you might wake up in the morning up and find your kidneys missing), but I don't see them here highlighting this fact, do I?

Noah

Perhaps you should read today's AP article on the U.S. human rights report on China before doubting these claims. Unless the U.S. Congress is anti-China as you say, I can't imagine why people would defend the CCP. China has a magnificent culture. The CCP is not China.

Rupert Tsang

John,
I don't claim to live in Beijing. I have only been living here for the past seven years and have seen things happen in my area. It seems to me that you don't believe anything bad about China. The CCP has killed more people than the Nazis ever did, but when it come to China, the West (mostly the U.S., U.K., France), just lets China do what they want. The worst of all is the UN. The UN is nothing but a big joke. I mean, really, how can they let China sit on the UN Human Rights Commission?

Boon Ler

The Olympics used to be for all mankind to come together to celebrate humanity despite differences in ideology, faith, and conflicts, and even for states still in the stage of war. Look at what the Dalai Lama and the other activists had achieved. Division and protest for the sake of protests. Some Tibetans and Darfur activists and supporters don't even know where Tibet and Sudan are, and yet they have been brainwashed to protest. If the situations are so simple, then the U.S. and its allies would not have the chance to celebrate their 5th anniversary of the Iraq occupation, and the end is still a long way ahead if it ever comes. I truly believe that the current situation has been pushed too far, and it won't solve anything, except a major event like the Olympics has been politicized, protested without knowledge of the consequences, made to promote division and hatred among peace-loving people worldwide, and an ideal event to be hijacked for political and hypocritical causes.

dan

John, some Australians were also involved in the boycott. I 'm glad you're enjoying living in Beijing. You must be in the 20% of Americans who have passports. Perhaps you could do me a favor? To settle this once and for all, would you mind going to a public place, let's say Tiananmen Square, and speaking loudly against the current government? If you didn't want to use such a high risk strategy, I'd understand. If we don't see any more posts from you for a long time...

ariesgirl

The Olympics are very much useful in terms of job opportunities, especially in a host country. They serve as means of employment, especially here in the Philippines, but the big issue is that politician take advantage of this opportunity. It is politicized--grabbing all opportunity in order to win again in the next election.

To all politicians: Why not doing something good?

Dyanne

The Olympics should never have been given to China in the first place since its murderous regime--the Communist party--is incapable of upholding any promises it made of improving human rights. Why are people so willing to gobble up its lies--like they haven't one drop of intelligence? What a disgraceful epoch of human history: the 2008 Beijing Fauxlimpics. They plowed down the homes of innocent hard-working Chinese citizens, detained, tortured, and "re-educated" them. Not to mention rounding up thousands of Falun Gong practitioners, putting them into concentration camps, and slicing out their organs for sale to wealthy foreigners. All the while the major media remained silent about the genocide happening there so that they could film this spectacle. How many people died for this entertainment?

How many people were silent to profit either materially or for fame from this event, not caring one bit for human suffering? That is what politicizing really is: self-serving and not caring squat for human life, trading lives for money and power.

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