Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Olympic Games: Politics As Usual?

Ever since the modern revival of the Olympic Games back in 1896 in Athens, Greece, the Olympics had since been plagued by nationalistic political rivalries – even cancelled three times - due to world wars. Will a once sacred institution ever gain independence from fractious politics?

By: Vanessa Uy

The Olympic Games have even earlier roots than our current modern equivalent that started back in 1896. The first Olympics were held in 776 BC at Olympia, Greece. Back then, nothing was of more importance to the Greeks than the quadrennial (that’s every four years) festival of sporting events and religious rites. Olympia was even considered a sacred ground. Wars were suspended, and a solemn peace – Ekecheiria – lasted for the duration of each and every Olympics.

Then came the intrusion of fractious politics of one form or another, which now threaten the upcoming 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics with widespread boycotts. The rationale behind this boycott range from Beijing’s unlawful annexation of Tibet to the Beijing Government’s complicity in the ongoing genocide in the Darfur Region of Sudan due to its lax regulation of armaments exports. Not to mention the spotty Human Rights record when it comes to handling its own political dissidents. Sadly the genocide and crackdown of political dissidents issue also applies to Tibet and to the country’s exiled spiritual leader His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.

The political turbulence plaguing our modern era Olympic Games have occurred several times before of varying degrees of controversy. Even during the 1896 Athens Olympics, a row over who’s following the Gregorian or Julian calendars was a point of contention. But controversy became big-time during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which also started the tradition of the Olympic Torch Relay. Our current Beijing Olympic Torch Relay lately became a target of anyone expressing his or her political sentiments over the Beijing Government’s “Shameful Policies”.

After reading a book by Richard Mandrell titled “The Nazi Olympics”, which is about how the author saw the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. I finally gained a clearer understanding about the rationale of anyone using the Olympic Games as a platform to express political views. Though the books salient theme is about how athletes are increasingly regarded as national assets. Comparable to the procurement of World War II era “prestige necessities” like fighter planes, submarines and synthetic rubber manufacturing plants. Add to that the triumph of African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owens, which shattered Adolph Hitler’s belief in the “Aryan Myth”. This finally made maintaining a “stable” of athletes a necessity if a country wants to maintain her national standing.

And who can ever forget on how John Carlos, the US gold-medal sprinter in the 1968 Mexico City Games who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of his national anthem as a critique of the Civil Rights situation in America. He later said: “The Olympics is nothing but a full political scene – everything in the world athletics is. It’s country against country, ideology against ideology. The people you run for – the officials – overshadow you with their political ambitions, with the face they want you to put for your country.”

Then came the shocking assassination of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Games by Palestinian militants is by far politics at its bloodiest. The “political debacle” that spurred on this terrible incident remains unresolved till this day. And might get even worse before it gets better.

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was more popularly known for leaving the host-city with a billion-dollar debt. Yet the political overtones were very much alive when 17 African nations refused to compete in the Montreal Games due to the exclusion from Olympic membership of South Africa and Taiwan by the International Olympic Committee.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics was popularly known for being synonymous with the word boycott. The US led boycott of the games which Canada, Japan and the then West Germany were among the nations that later followed suit has called into question whether this is the beginning of the end of the Olympic Ideal. Though many then viewed that the boycott was justified primarily because the Civilized World’s protest over the then Soviet Union’s unlawful invasion of Afghanistan just to quell a suspected threat of Islamic Fundamentalism is very much justified. The planned boycott of a growing number of Western nations over the upcoming Beijing Olympics is partly bolstered by the relative success and the political ideals behind the US led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.

The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was boycotted in a tit for tat response by the then Soviet Union and other Warsaw-Pact countries / allies. The Los Angeles Games was more famous for its blatant commercialism despite it’s the first time that a host-city finally earned a profit from the games.

The “minor quip” of the 1988 Seoul Olympics was the press finally finding out about the scandal over the use of illegal performance enhancing substances like anabolic steroids which later plague the athletes who used them with chronic health problems several years later. Luckily, no one used then President Chun Doo Hwan’s brutal crackdown of student protests as an excuse for boycotting the games.

The 1992 Barcelona Olympics was more of a PR issue for the city when the spectators were greeted with a high incidence of petty crimes like purse snatching and pick pocketing. Though no one threatened to boycott the games using Tomàs de Torquemada, the Spanish Inquisition, the Colonialism / Imperialism issue, complicity on the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the unsolved disappearances / murders during the Franco dictatorship as an excuse.

The 1996 Atlanta Olympics was a controversial one because the proposed venue of the centennial of the modern Olympics was supposed to be Athens, Greece. But the city of Atlanta outbid Athens. No one threatened to boycott over this. The threat of domestic terrorism by now largely forgotten Christian Fundamentalist / extremist who blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City back in April 20, 1995 is the only big issue surrounding the games. Though a prankster was charged with disturbing the peace by blowing up a somewhat large firecracker during the opening ceremonies.

While the 2000 Sydney Olympics was largely incident free. The planned protest by Native Australians or Aborigines about the “Stolen Generation” issue was kept out of the media’s gaze probably due to the efforts of then Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s “Secret Police Apparatus”. Though the Aborigines later got their apology when Kevin Rudd became the current Prime Minister of Australia.

The controversy surrounding the 2004 Athens Olympics were mostly pertaining to the politics of money and bureaucratic red tape which dangerously delayed the finishing of the facilities to be used during the games. The issue over the partition of Cyprus never came up though.

The upcoming 2008 Beijing Olympics is probably the most controversial Olympics to date not just because of the “political overtones” surrounding the event but also the levels of air pollution in Beijing which could pose as a health hazard to the athletes. Will the Beijing Government stop the wheels of their industry just to keep the air quality acceptable during the games? Though the International Olympic Committee’s decision for Beijing to host this year’s Olympic Games was decided over three years ago. The long list of “rationales” for boycotting it did not gain widespread discussion until near the end of 2007. Back then the row over YAHOO! CEO Jerry Yang giving the Beijing Government vital information that allowed them to arrest journalist Shi Tao as a political dissident seems like an excerpt from a bad episode of the TV series 24, was the only popularly known rationale for boycotting the games. The banality of evil for those who don’t witness it first hand notwithstanding, yet it was when the Beijing Government’s heavy handed crackdown over the unrest in Tibet got the badly needed media exposure did everybody became convinced that boycotting the games is a moral imperative. Adding to that the spotty Human Rights record, not to mention the AN YUE JIANG and her shipload of weapons bound for the ailing “Mugabe Regime” in landlocked Zimbabwe being uncovered in the port of Durban in South Africa only strengthens the case for a boycott. But the question is should we?

The Beijing Government has been accusing the Western media for their somewhat biased reporting in regards to the upcoming Summer Olympics. But the BBC’s extensive news coverage regarding the plight of the working class Chinese eking out a living. What about the athletes who probably spent years – even decades - honing their skills? Should these people just voluntarily penalize themselves over the International Community’s failure to deal with Beijing’s heavy handedness diplomatically? This has got me thinking whether there is a better way other than an all out boycott in showing our disapproval over how the powers-that-be ran China. When the US government staged a trade embargo against the then “Apartheid Government” of South Africa, they choose only goods that are of use to the Apartheid Regime. While necessities are still available to the average black South African. Top level dignitaries like the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says he will not attend the opening ceremonies of the upcoming Beijing Olympics citing scheduling conflicts of his junket. Maybe the participating athletes – as a sign of protest – will do what John Carlos did during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, a symbolic show of defiance.