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Boycott or abolition? The politics behind the Beijing Olympiad

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Tuesday, 15 April 2008


They came out in their droves in San Francisco to disrupt the running of the Olympic Torch last Wednesday, just as they did in Paris and London. Some locals desired a different approach from those disruptive Londoners and Parisians - they would show “respect” to the Chinese organisers of the games and the spirit of the Olympics. The pro-Tibetan marchers begged to differ.

One of America’s most liberal cities, again betraying a dearth of clear thinking among Olympic officials, was hardly the best venue to stage the run. The route had to be re-organised at short notice, and the times and distances of the harassed trotters halved.

The premise of the pro-Tibet protesters is sound enough, even if their gestures may be as futile as those of the pyromaniacal Peregrinus Proteus. According to Lucian, this Roman suspect of parricide immolated himself, in protest, at the AD165 games. Showing how history has, as Mark Twain reminds us, a rhyming effect, Tibetan monks promise to do the same at Beijing.

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The most telling crimes, both cultural and political, have taken place in Tibet. With Beijing’s blessings, Han Chinese have deluged the country, throttling it with a modernisation program that is revolutionary in its goals: abolishing feudalism, and the singular role of Buddhism.

Beijing detests political dissent, and the monks resemble, in the eyes of the authorities, rebellious foot soldiers. The Dalai Lama is a political exile seen to be fomenting revolution. “The self-proclaimed spiritual leader has obviously forgotten his identity, abused his religion and played too much politics,” suggested Xinhua (March 31), China’s official news agency.

To deny China a chance at putting on such an event without disruption may be doing them a disservice - after all, numerous other less than noble regimes got there first, often without demur. But the issue here should be less about a boycott, or even protest, than abolition. The case for finally ending this monumental charade can be done by looking at what the Olympics is not.

It is certainly not a democratising, let alone humanitarian venture. The seed of this error can be pointed to Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern doctrine of “Olympism”. It makes one ill to read a description of what “Olympism” is by University of Sheffield sociologist Maurice Roche, for him, an effort to “elevate sport into the leading edge of a broader idealistic and universalistic humanitarian mission in the modern world.”

The democratising ballast of Olympian heroics received a boost after the Seoul Games of 1988. This is at least what some authors would like you to think. According to one study in the Third World Quarterly (2004) by David Black and Shona Bezanson, the Olympics forced the regime to “confront basic questions of political development which were not initially on its own near-term agenda”. A curious and scrutinising world press and the fears of a “loss of face” in having the games forfeited, propelled change.

The authors commit a cardinal error in confusing cause and effect. Sport is not in itself a catalyst for change. To suggest that the Olympics somehow turned authoritarians into democrats is disingenuous and historically shallow.

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On the contrary, there is much to suggest that global sporting organisations like the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and the International Olympic Committee are clay-footed colossi resistant to change. Consider, for instance, the case of former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was Generalissimo Franco’s government secretary for sports in 1966.

The bargaining between the IOC with Beijing officials which saw some promises of “social change” was barely credible. It bore some resemblance to the discussions between sporting bureaucrats on whether they would participate in the Berlin games of 1936. The American Athletic Union, riled by the exclusion of Jewish athletes from the German team, contemplated a boycott. But the then president of the American Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, extracted a meek promise from his German counterparts that all qualified athletes would be allowed to participate.

The Olympiad is certainly not for the host country’s poor. Notoriously, staging the Olympics reverses the fortunes of the impoverished while proclaiming the reverse. Seeing the London campaign for 2012, one might have confused the Olympics for Abraham Lincoln’s Freedmen’s Bureau of Southern reconstruction. In truth, a promise of the next games is a clarion call for the bulldozer and the lock-up cell.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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