“Hold on, you mean that East European guy threw a heavy ball further than that other East European guy? Whoah … that’s amazing”. Every four years when the Olympics rolls around my sarcasm increases exponentially and interest in sport reduces to the same level of my interest in polka music and taxation law.
Constant news updates concerning the fashion of athletic uniforms, the construction of stadiums, and the improvements in so-and-so’s ankle injury are annoying but essentially harmless. That old chestnut defence of advertisers and reality-television producers, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it”, seems to appropriately rebuke my complaints. However there is one issue that is increasingly impossible to ignore. That is the bizarre argument that sport and politics exist in separate realms and the Olympics represent some sort of celebration of humanity where people with social consciences ought not to tread.
A concerned Australian public has raised questions concerning China’s human rights record, its pollution levels, and alleged crackdown on dissidents in the run-up to the games. These are all extremely valid questions to ask, and questions one would hope would be asked in a pluralistic and concerned society. It has also been entertaining to see Coates, Gosper, et al clutching at straws when asked questions concerning blue tracksuit wearing security officers and journalists’ lack of reporting freedom. China is reneging on agreements concerning journalists’ independence? Surprise, surprise. China is an authoritarian state and knows all too well that information is power.
We all know that the Beijing Games will be a big debutante party for the Chinese government, an opportunity to show the world the strength of both the Chinese national identity and its model of political governance.
This display of the Chinese political model is also an implicit reaffirmation of government actions that squash political and religious freedoms, disallow meaningful democracy, and a foreign policy that supports international pariahs like Zimbabwe and Sudan.
Because China is such a behemoth in the public imagination, and has serious skeletons in its closet, the political facets of these Games are more obvious. However, a cursory glance at the history of the Olympics sees them as a purely political exercise that states engage in.
Looking solely at the behaviour of the CCP is ignoring an important area of concern, the wider political role of the Olympics. If one listens to IOC officials and politicians, we are informed of how the Olympics are a celebration of excellence, and provide the world with a holiday to escape from the ugly realm of state politics and day-to-day difficulties. A lazy Sunday afternoon for the globe, if you will.
However, to say that the Games are apolitical is nonsense. Throughout the 112 years of the modern Olympics they have consistently been used by states to further political ends and embarrass international opponents. Claims by leaders of a cosmopolitan brotherhood are merely a veil to cloak those most primitive of state intentions, exertion of power and prestige.
Adolph Hitler used the Games to demonstrate the “success” of the Nazi political system and was famously unable to prove Aryan physical dominance with the win of Jesse Owens. But it was the Cold War that provided the true era of the Olympics as a political action. From Games in proxy locales like Munich and Helsinki to national boycotts to ice-hockey “battles”, the Olympics of the Cold War were inseparable from the political decisions made in the Whitehouse and Kremlin.
This overt political relationship may be less prevalent now in the post-Cold War environment, but we now have the “debutante” Games - as most glaringly displayed in Beijing. The 1988 Seoul Games (ignoring for the moment the police state that existed in South Korea until recently) presented the success of the Newly Industrialised Economies of Asia to the doe-eyed suitors of the world. Barcelona 1992 attempted to throw off the baggage of a post-fascist Spain. The United States obviously did not need to be presented to the world in 1996, but Atlanta (and the American South more generally) did. Even us, when we recall the excitement and frivolity of the 2000 Sydney Games, revelled in throwing the party for the new millennium and flaunting our ability to punch-above-our-weight in middle power international politics.
While the desired image of the Olympics may be a bottom-up “coming together” of global society, in practice the Olympics is a top-down process determined by the issues and events at the very tip of the international pyramid.
This is not meant to denigrate or belittle the determination and hard work athletes display (my procrastinating self would love some of their dedication), but instead meant to identify the Olympics’ rightful place as a political exercise that is distinct from the image it presents.
So where to from here? Should Kevin Rudd boycott the Games on the basis of Chinese human rights abuses? No, this would solve nothing and cause far more damage to the Sino-Australian relationship than any domestic political points he would score.
Neither should the idea of an Olympic Games be dismissed as pointless. They do have a role to play and millions of people genuinely enjoy them. But supercilious rhetoric on the behalf of officials needs to be taken with a grain (or two) of salt. This is not a pedantic or solely academic argument to make. Because as IOC and AOC officials argue that the focus of the Games should be on the athletes, and we should get behind and support our Aussie battlers, they belittle the intelligence of a rightly concerned public and portray themselves as naïve and ill informed.
Presenting the Olympics as a crowning achievement in international society is disingenuous and ignores the fact that everything, even synchronised swimming, is political.