Politics and the Olympic Games

The news of protest and calls for boycotts (of various flavors) of the 2008 Olympic games raises the perennial question of whether or not politics should have any bearing upon sport. It’s really not a new issue at all. Think of the 1936 Nazi Olympics where Jesse Owens embarrassingly upset what was supposed to be Hitler’s Aryan showcase games. Think also of Munich, Moscow, and Los Angeles — Olympic games marked by political terror, propaganda, and absence.

On the one hand, there is a legitimate political stage to make certain reasonable political statements. After all, it is nation-states who sponsor and recognize the competitors. Athletes compete not on behalf of themselves (or of a shoe company), but on behalf of a country — a distinct political unity.

On the other hand, you have athletes who train for many years only to be bandied about by the whim of bureaucrats. Athletic competition does operate, at least in some respects, on a level outside the political sphere. It can give the tiniest nation parity with superpowers. While we live in nation-states, the nation-state does not comprise our whole being.

Make no mistake, the modern Olympics — with all its hokey mythologizing — gives itself more credit than is due. Citius, altius, fortius, indeed — but not without billions of dollars from official sponsors and licensing fees. The Olympics serve not only as a competition, but as a giant marketing platform for the host city and country. To be chosen for the Olympic Games is to be given legitimacy among a nation’s peers in the world.

Getting back to the news of the day, is it at all appropriate to protest the Games in part or whole for the misbehavior of a host country? Given the considerations I’ve mentioned above, I think so.

The Chinese govenrment’s human rights issues are legendary. From its population control policies that encourage (if not force) abortion, to its outright oppression of religious groups (be they Tibetan monks, Christian house churches, or Falun Gong adherents), the Chinese government evades answering to the world by brandishing its military and industrial might.

Like other conservative bloggers, I find myself in the strange company of Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton, who are calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies. If there is no boycott on the national level, I think at the very least that athletes themselves should mount some sort of protest. Perhaps medal winners could turn their medals around to hang from their backs while on the podium? That would be difficult for the Chinese officials to police, and it would speak volumes.

Alas, a protest or boycott is only a first step. Real, tough stances need to be taken against the Chinese government against its human rights policies, lest we sell our souls for a mess of cheap discount store goods.