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Abusing the Olympic spirit

By Sev Ozdowski - posted Friday, 25 July 2008

On August 8, 2008, the Beijing Olympics will commence. The recent controversy about the Olympic torch relay is an indication of things to come. Despite the Chinese security forces guarding the torch and local officials trying their best to manage any dissent, we witnessed numerous disruptions. This happened because the torch and the Olympics became a magnet to those who wanted to protest against the lack of civil liberties and freedoms in contemporary China.

Olympics and the politics

Beijing has complained persistently over the past few months that human rights critics have politicised the Olympics and are trying to use the games for their own propaganda purposes.

But the undeniable fact is that China is itself using the Olympics for political purposes. Recently the IOC had to rebuke China for political remarks made by a CCP (Chinese Communist Party) official as the torch passed through Lhasa who said: “The sky above Tibet will never change. The red five-star flag will always fly above this land. We can definitely smash the separatist plot of the Dalai Lama clique completely.”


The Chinese are using the Olympics to showcase China’s economic achievements and to consolidate China’s status as a world super power.

Looking back through history, Nazi authorities held the same hopes for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. In 1936 Nazi dictatorship was already well established and the racist Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 took away all civil liberties from Jews.

The 2008 Olympics and human rights

Can we legitimately discuss the human rights issues in the context of Beijing Olympics, and if so, why? I would like to offer a three-prong answer.

First, China, in lobbying the IOC to host the 2008 Olympic Games, promised that it would use the Beijing Olympics to advance the human rights of its people.

Second, for centuries the Olympic spirit has been linked to human rights, civility and peace. In ancient Greece, a truce was announced before and during each Olympic festival. This linkage of the Olympic movement with human rights has been incorporated into the Olympic Charter which defines sport as a human right and specifically prohibits any form of discrimination in Principle 5 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism.

And third, China has definite obligations under the international human rights law. As early as 1947 China was a member of a Drafting Committee developing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Since the late 1970’s China has ratified most of the principal international human rights treaties including the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment.


By ratifying these conventions China has ceded part of its sovereignty and its human rights performance has became a legitimate subject of international scrutiny.

The current human rights situation in China

After examination of evidence I regret to conclude that since China was granted the right to host the 2008 Olympics, its civil and political rights record has not improved, but has, instead, grown progressively worse.

The on-going brutal occupation and colonisation of Tibet by Communist China started 60 years ago continues to this day. The destruction of Tibetan culture, spirituality and environment is well documented. The recently opened railway link appears to be the Beijing’s final solution for Tibet: it helps the domination of Tibetans by Han Chinese and further reduces them to second class citizens in their own country.

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This article is an edited version of an address given by the author to The Activating Human Rights and Peace International Conference in Byron Bay  on July 1-4, 2008. The full text is available here.

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About the Author

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM is Adjunct Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, The University of Sydney and was Australian Human Rights Commissioner and Disability Discrimination Commissioner (2000-05).

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Sev Ozdowski

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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