We keep hearing from the commentators that the Olympics are this great uniting thing internationally. I don’t know about that. The athletes, generally, seem to shake hands across any barrier, but are there enough of them (or are they respected enough) to make a difference back home?
The major political incursions into the arena so far:
1. An Iranian swimmer withdrew/was ordered to withdraw because he was in a preliminary heat with an Israeli swimmer. It seems that Iranian athletes have not faced Israeli athletes since Iran’s 1979 revolution. There was an incident at the 2004 Olympics where an Iranian judo competitor pulled out at the last minute; Iranian newspapers claimed he did it because of “the Zionist occupiers’ ” dealings with the Palestinians. The IOC determined it was just because the Iranian was overweight; something about a digestive problem that prevented him from making weight in Athens. Of course, Iran also had a history by that point of refusing to compete against Israelis in the world judo championships (and previous Olympics), so it looks suspiciously like plausible deniability. Yeah, that’s the Olympic Spirit, right there… and the IOC has put up with it so far.
2. Georgian and Russian athletes embraced, in spite of the nasty war that has sprung up (or continued) between their countries. Georgia is trying to reclaim South Ossetia, which attempted to secede in 1991. The peace has apparently not been a good one, with Russia encouraging the separatists in various ways, including by offering Russian passports to occupants of South Ossetia, which is still, technically, part of the country of Georgia. Russia says it’s protecting Russian speakers in South Ossetia from ethnic cleansing by Georgia, and that, since (by Russia’s count) 90% of South Ossetians have Russian passports, Russia is obliged to take revenge for deaths in the region, apparently by widening the conflict into undisputed Georgian territory. So, after all that mess, the athletes managed to embrace. Also, President Bush pulled Vladimir Putin (aka the real power behind the throne) aside during the opening ceremonies and, basically told him to cut that crap out. Frankly, it doesn’t look like either gesture will have much effect, but I’d lay odds on Bush’s disapproval forcing more of a response than a couple of hugging athletes. (Sorry, y’all; nice gesture, though.)
3. The commentators on the men’s cycling event grouchily commented as the race passed Tiannamen Square that, now that those pesky demonstrators have been arrested (several “free Tibet” groups and some pro-lifers, who don’t seem to have been mentioned at all in the major media), the athletes can just get down to sports. Never mind that widespread reports indicate that human rights abuses in China have actually gotten worse in the lead-up to the Olympics, not better, as China had promised the IOC, and that there is plenty to protest. Some commentators’ anti-politicism aside, President Bush has been doing exactly what he said he’d be doing in China: talking about human rights. In an inverview on EWTN (Mother Angelica’s international Catholic channel, based in Birmingham, Alabama) several months ago, President Bush pointed out that he didn’t need the Olympics to talk human rights with the Chinese: he’d been doing it consistently for years. He also said that he would not boycott the Games, on the premise that you can’t talk to someone if you aren’t there. Again, tonight, on NBC, President Bush emphasized that point and confirmed that he’d again pushed human rights, particularly religious freedom, with Chinese president Hu Jintao.
Any international event is going to have some political overshadowing. It is unavoidable, especially for events as high-profile as the Olympics. Athletes, in general, seem to be pretty accomodating across political, ethnic, and language barriers. But they are a tiny minority in their home countries, and usually not nearly as influential as entertainment celebrities (who too often seem to think we care what they think about the environment, the war, or anything else) or politicians.
Occasionally, an athlete finds a way to make a significant difference with what they know best: sports. Olympic champion speed skater Joey Cheek saw his Chinese visa suddenly revoked over his support of Team Darfur, a coalition of athletes looking to keep the spotlight on the atrocities being perpetrated in Darfur by the Sudanese government. (China took this as an affront, since China has supported the Sudanese government against international sanctions.) Cheek also donated several of his medal bonuses to Right to Play, an organization that was mentioned several times in the opening ceremonies for its work in underprivileged (and often wartorn) countries to give children an opportunity to play and learn from sports. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joey_Cheek with links to both organizations)
Athletes can be somewhat effective influencing people through sports, but that only goes so far. We all need to learn when to cooperate… and when to step on a few toes and tell people (and countries) that their unjust actions will not be tolerated, not even in the service of apparent international harmony.
P.S. Thanks to the French men’s swimming relay team for *encouraging* the U.S. team to blow away the world record. I have a French minor, but I forget how to say, “Eat crow!” in French…. 🙂