The 2008 Olympics: Supporting their Progress

I must admit, I probably will not watch a lot of the Summer Olympics this August. I enjoy the games, and will usually stop to watch an event if I pass by it on the dial, but I am not interested enough to schedule it into my day the way I am with an NFL or MLB game, or even a PGA event (well, as long as its one of the majors).

There are some, who if they had their way, would see to it that none of us would watch the Olympics this summer from Beijing. China’s human rights record and the situations unfolding in Tibet and Darfur have led to riots along the torch route (some of which, somewhat ironically, have escalated into violence) and calls for boycotts of the opening ceremony.

Thankfully, a call for an outright boycott of the games has not yet been issued. Perhaps this is a lesson learned from the 1980 Moscow games, which were boycotted due to the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott meant little to the Soviets, who dominated the games, and then proceeded to remain in Afghanistan until 1989. However, calls for a boycott of the opening ceremony have been heard. Notably, President Bush has received tremendous criticism for insisting that he plans to attend. French President Nikolas Sarkozy is likely to boycott the opening ceremony, and is urging other world leaders to do the same.

I support President Bush in this matter. Chinese culture is much different than ours. While Americans may think, “Who cares whether people come to the opening ceremony?”, this is a major concern for the Chinese. In their culture, reputation carries much greater, and much different significance than it does in the West. A boycott would serve more as a slap in the face to the Chinese than it would an indictment of human rights violations. On the other hand, if every world leader were to attend the opening ceremony, and show their support of the games, the culture, and the people of China, even in the face of all the accusations, that act of goodwill would hold much greater potential to lend itself to real change.

This becomes especially true when we step back and ask just what do we expect to accomplish from these calls to boycott and protests along the torch route? If all we wanted to do was shed light on the human rights violations in China, this has been a partial success. It is still a mystery to many people exactly what China has done, because all the press covering the protests has centered on only the protesters and not the issue they are protesting. It still takes the initiative of the rest of us to do the research and figure out just what the uproar is all about.

But beyond just making people slightly more aware, what is expected to come of all this? Unfortunately, it will likely all be forgotten once the games are complete, and China will continue to carry on in the same manner she has been. It is fine to use the games, and specifically the torch relay, as a platform to have our voices heard. Indeed, this is one of the freedoms the Chinese do not enjoy. But we can’t expect any significant change to arise from some protests, and we absolutely cannot jeopardize the games to try to solve these issues.

The issues in China are serious. I do not want anyone to mistakenly think I am putting the Olympics on the same level of importance as some of the things China is accused of. Their suppression of individual freedoms, their attitude towards Darfur, and the situation in Tibet are all serious international concerns and deserving of serious action. But the Olympic Games are simply not the place for this action. The games are about the athletes and the competition. Do some searching online and read articles about Iraqi athletes, forced to train in crumbling arenas, bribe their way through checkpoints to get to practice, and train with old, sometimes dangerous equipment. Find stories about the Olympic team from Sudan, which includes members of the tribes on both sides of the crisis there, and how those tribal differences mean nothing to the athletes who compete side by side. Or think back to the Asian Cup (you know you watched it), which saw Iraqis of every faction united for a brief period while their soccer team won the tournament for the first time.

It is easy in America, where we are blessed with such a huge sports culture, to shrug off the Olympics. It is perhaps due to round the clock coverage of the four major sports that the Olympics seem to have lost some of their luster here in recent years. But to people in most other nations, and to athletes here who aren’t involved in the major sports, the Olympics are their Super Bowl; their chance to shine; their chance to compete against the world’s best. If an athlete wanted to boycott the games, that I would support. It is their event, and their choice to use it as they choose. But for politics to interfere with something with the potential to be such a unifying source is to me unthinkable.

I believe that something should be done to address the situation in China. Real change requires a real sacrifice–something that affects us as well as them. Boycotting Chinese-made items would qualify, as would other forms of economic sanctions. If we truly care about what is going on there, we need to be willing to make the necessary changes in our own lives first. If we are not willing to make a similar sacrifice just yet, we can voice our distaste for what is happening there, as thankfully is our right; but we should also show the Chinese people that we support them, and want to join with them for these two weeks during the summer to witness a spectacle that, just maybe, has the power to point this situation in a positive direction. Like it or not, China will be on display to the world come August. These games can serve as a time to condemn their government or as a time to learn about and experience their culture and to show our support for the progress they have already made.

Dan Mason is set to graduate in May with his B.S. in Accounting. He day-dreams about being in the wilderness. Most importantly, he is set to be married in August.

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