Thursday, September 04, 2008

Beijing Olympics (2)

I mentioned previously that I felt some discomfort with China’s hosting of the Olympic Games in the light of their human rights record. It’s a complex issue, to be fair; I doubt any country can claim an unblemished record on human rights. Also, the things that bother me most about China may not be those that bother other people. But the point is there are a lot of reasons why people might be unhappy about China. As examples: the way it treats its workers; pollution; the one-child policy, or at least some of the issues of how that is implemented; the treatment of Tibet; the censorship of the press; and the harsh way the government deals with dissent.

Now with the Olympics being hosted in China, that naturally draws more media attention to the country, and therefore that’s a good time to bring some of these issues to the public attention. Certainly in the run up to the games, the Olympic torch relays were seen my many as an opportunity to create protests to draw attention to certain causes, and, whatever I might think of those causes, I have to say, good on them.

So one thing that really bothered me about the Olympics was the lack of any noticeable protests during the games themselves. Maybe this is just to do with its coverage on the BBC, but I suspect not. I’m sure there have been odd scuffles outside the events, but its easy for the Chinese government with its control of the media to stifle those. Things have probably changed in China since the 1989 Tienanmen Square outrage. But maybe not very much.

It would have course have been easy for the Chinese government to suppress (probably brutally) any protests happening during the Olympics. They probably did; I doubt we would have heard anything about it. But there is one place during the Olympic games where any protests would have been guaranteed to reach the eyes and ears of the world – and where I suspect even the Chinese government would have been powerless to torture or murder. On the podium.

After all, it’s been done before. In 1968, at the medal ceremony for the 200m, American Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman made a protest about the treatment of blacks in the US.

There are those who feel that the Olympics is no place for this kind of protest. Sadly it seems that most sports are run by people like this. After the 1968 protest, all three athletes were effectively banned from the Olympics for life. How many Olympic associations would have supported an athlete involved in such a protest in 2008? And if they had, would they have risked the Chinese sending the entire team home? Maybe there were some who would have liked to protest but who felt that the human cost for them would have been too high. I have sympathy with them; you have to choose your battles. But I also feel that given everything that happens in China, then choosing to stand on a podium and not make a protest – and that is a choice – is to a small extent standing in complicity with the government that has used such bloody methods to stifle dissent and control its citizens.

I am in awe of everyone who won medals at the Olympics. But I also feel that each athlete who stood quietly on the podium is somehow less human as a result.


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