China Snows the World
The International Olympic Committee tells us in its charter that it aims to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Also, that “the practice of sport is a human right,” and “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” All beautiful ideas if one hasn’t learned to trust the moral compass of the Olympic Committee about as much as that of a hedge fund manager.
This is the organization that thought it proper to let athletes carry on in 11 of 22 sports for eight hours in the 1972 Munich Games after learning that Palestinian terrorists had murdered two Israeli coaches and were holding nine more members of the Israeli team hostage (all nine were eventually murdered, and the games were finally suspended, but only for a day). This is the organization that let Moscow go ahead with its games in 1980 as the Soviet army was massacring its way across Afghanistan (61 countries boycotted, including the United States). This is the committee that, while having the good sense to ban South Africa from the games from 1964 to 1988 over South Africa’s policy of apartheid, doesn’t question Saudi Arabia’s right to participate—even though that kingdom’s religious nuts ban women from all sports.
So it was natural that the Olympic Committee yielded in 2001 to China’s bid for this year’s summer Olympics. Toronto’s oppressive cleanliness and Paris’ dictatorial arrogance, the two cities also considered, couldn’t compete with China’s standard-issue repression. The committee’s argument was that it was time to recognize China’s modernization, and that as in Seoul in 1988 and Mexico City 20 years earlier, the games would crack the walls of authoritarianism and encourage liberalization.
It happened in South Korea and Mexico. It didn’t happen in China, where the games have been China’s excuse to stuff “reeducation camps” with prisoners held without trial, conduct massive internal deportations, crack down on dissidents and protesters (Tibetans, Muslims, Buddhists’ Falun Gong sect), let loose roving bands of vigilantes wearing “Good luck Beijing” baseball caps with authority to silence troublemakers—and fuel a rabid wave of nationalism, especially among the young, that belches more chauvinism than your average flag-waving Republican rally.
Bashing the Olympics should be an Olympic sport of its own. We’d all be gold medalists. In hypocrisy especially. I’ll certainly be watching the games every day, avidly at that, though as much for the politics of it as for the sports. The problem with the games has never been the athletes. Not even the ones who dope themselves, the whole Olympic spectacle being a nationalistic doping orgy for the country that hosts it. The problem is the IOC’s moronic belief that sport and politics can be separated—by force and censorship if necessary.
In China, the IOC is condoning both tactics. Not only are sport and politics inseparable at the Olympics. The two together is what makes the Olympics compelling, letting us in on countries’ dirty secrets (when our news-covering networks do their job, which is rare) as well as the endless run of athlete stories that break the most hardened hearts and most jaded souls.
I dare you not to have cried at the sight of Lopez Lomong, one of the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, carrying the American flag in the opening ceremonies. He was orphaned in the Sudanese civil war, made a child soldier, escaped to a refugee camp for 10 years, taken in by the United States as one of some 3,600 Lost Boys beginning in 1999 and sworn a citizen 13 months ago. He’s on Team Darfur, which uses athletes’ celebrity to heighten awareness of the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur. On Friday, he led Team USA into the magnificent Olympic stadium, the so-called Bird’s Nest. Stories like that at the Olympics could fill a stadium-sized library.
So can stories like the sight of President Bush in the Bird’s Nest, paying tribute (because that’s what it was) to his, to our, Chinese keepers: They’ve lent us the money that makes our extravagant consumerism possible. They also know that Bush can’t lecture them—not on illegal detentions, which, thanks to him, are now as American as they are Chinese. Not on torture: Dick Cheney gets the gold in waterboarding. Not on overstuffed prisons: We have a population four times smaller than China’s but a prison population one-and-a-half times larger. Not on pollution: The United States still pollutes the planet more than China by far, even if it does so more sneakily. Not even on free speech: China’s “free-speech zones,” organized in a couple of distant Beijing parks, are an American import.
It’s taken 104 years, but these are the Olympics where the United States makes even a country like China look good in comparison. The two belong together, with the IOC as their valet.