On the Road to Beijing

The use of the Olympic Games as a venue for political activity is by no means a new phenomenon. The 1936 Berlin games during which Adolph Hitler’s plans to demonstrate Aryan superiority were scuttled by black American athlete Jesse Owens who won four gold medals in the process; the death of eleven Israeli athletes taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich games; the boycott of the 1980 Moscow games by over 60 countries led by the U.S. in retaliation for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan immediately come to mind.

Thus, it is not surprising that, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s abysmal human rights record in China itself, in Tibet and in its failure to pressure its ally and trading partner Sudan to end the fighting in Darfur where over 400,000 have died and 2.5 million displaced is receiving world-wide condemnation and attention.

What is surprising is that the political activity is not coming from governments. Although world leaders openly denounce China’s human rights abuses, afraid of offending the economic giant, none has had the courage to take direct action such as announce a boycott of the opening ceremonies or of the games themselves. All protest activity is coming from human rights organizations and individual activists.

Protesters are well aware that the upcoming Summer Games are not just “fun in the sun” for China. The government has tied the country’s global prestige firmly to the success of the event and as a result is very sensitive to slights, failures or embarrassments.

Currently protesters are concentrating on the Olympic torch relay which to date has been successfully interrupted in both London and Paris where it was doused several times and spent most of the planned route carried on a bus. As I write this, the torch has just arrived in San Francisco where more demonstrations are expected.

The power to mount a really effective protest lies with the athletes. However, under Rule 51, subsection 3, of the Olympic Charter, which says: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." an athlete flashing a “Free Tibet” banner in Beijing risks being sent home.

We can hardly expect or ask of them, many of whom have spent years and in some cases almost a lifetime of training and practice in anticipation of the games, to do anything to damage their chances for an Olympic medal.

Chinese authorities and the IOC will see that direct activism ceases the moment the torch reaches China in May where it is scheduled to go on tour there. Nonetheless, protests along the route of the torch relay to date have successfully refocused the world’s attention on China’s criminal human rights abuses.

Will the Chinese get the message? Unquestionably.

Will they respond appropriately? Probably not.

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