Baptized by Fire

The Persistent Politics of the Olympic Games

by Tobias Peterson

27 April 2008


If a parade marches along an empty street, is it still a parade? Existential questions such as these came to mind as the Olympic torch snuck through San Francisco recently, shucking and juking its way down half-deserted streets in an attempt to avoid throngs of protestors.

Trying desperately to avoid a repeat of the very public confrontations that met the torch earlier in London and Paris, San Francisco organizers set up a decoy parade route, complete with live music and crowds to greet the torch as it finished its tour of the city. The torch, however, never showed. Instead, it was whisked from its starting position into a warehouse, where it stayed out of sight for a time under the circling gaze of news helicopters before finally embarking on the great fake-out, accompanied every step of the way down nondescript blocks by a cordon of police and security staff.

Avoiding a repeat of the violent clashes occasioned by previous parades, San Francisco instead produced something never before seen in the history of the games. Draped with security, rushed along a shortened, secret route, the Olympic torch was given more a bum’s rush than a celebratory tour. Still, this bizarre turn of events says more about this year’s host country, China, than it does about the city of San Francisco.

With its economic support of Sudan despite the Darfur genocide, its crackdown of protests in Tibet, as well as its suppression of human rights in its own country, China is perhaps the most controversial country to host the games since Nazi Germany. Although the country and its supporters see the Olympics as a deserved confirmation of their emergence as a global economic power, this heightened visibility has been a two-edged sword that has raised public awareness of troubling Chinese policies.

In the face of this “mo’ money, mo’ problems” scenario, China continues to denounce its critics, showing no signs of conciliation. For their part, protestors doggedly refuse to let their numerous complaints die down. Such is the impasse that the controversy occasioned by the appearance of the Olympic torch seems, at this point, to be merely a rehearsal for what might happen once the games begin.

And yet, there are those who would suggest that this brouhaha is misplaced. Most prominent among them is US President George Bush. While Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown have declined to attend the games’ opening ceremonies—registering clear, if non-verbal, opposition to China’s human rights record—as of this writing, Bush has been less forthcoming about his plans to attend. If recent comments are any indication, however, he will have a front row seat. Through his national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, Bush has said that skipping the games is “a cop-out”—a characteristically colloquial and cryptic assertion that flips the situation on its ear. Hadley went on to suggest that “quiet diplomacy” is needed to bring about true change.

Detractors might suggest that the true cop-out comes in a refusal to act, excused in lieu of an unspecified and unqualified commitment to action at some time as yet to be determined. However, Bush has given other, more illuminating, reasons for his refusal to skip the ceremonies, saying “I don’t view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event.” Bush’s argument is not a new one. Yet its invocation here reveals just how wrong-headed and reductive this age-old assertion is. The idea is that a) athletes are interested only in sports and so, b) they are not interested in politics, therefore c) sports are not subject to political engagement, and d) should be an escape from, rather than a reminder of, the political realities of our world.

To call this notion utopian would be to suggest that it describes a situation as ideal as it is impossible. And, while even a passing knowledge of Olympic history (or the history of any major sport) confirms the fiction of separating sports and politics, keeping them apart is far from an ideal to strive for. The distinction between sports and politics is, of course, a blurry line at best. Anyone who’s attended a live sporting event in America can attest to the requisite Pledge of Allegiance kicking things off. It’s not that sports allows us to escape politics per se, then, but rather they tend to suppress oppositional politics. A football player running onto the field waving an American flag might seem apolitical, but that’s only because the vast majority tend to agree with his political sentiments. When, for example, Denver Nugget guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the pledge as a sign of protest, he was quickly shouted down by the NBA and its fans.

The distance between politics and sports, then, has more to do with popular expectations of athletes, rather than the very likely existence of their own beliefs. Also, the myth of the apolitical athlete can be understood as the result of active players’ sensitivity to what political expression can cost them in the way of fans and, more to the point, endorsements. Charles Barkley, a tough-nosed opponent as a basketball player, was lambasted during his playing career by suggesting that players were not role models. Today, however, the retired Barkley is free to speak his mind about Christian conservatives on CNN, while still able to hawk T-Mobile phone plans.

The Olympics, however, is a global athletic event (rather than a regular sport), and may seem for some to be above political rancor, a chance for countries to set aside differences and come together in the spirit of athletic competition. Such proximity, however, is itself a kind of political position, one facilitated specifically by sports. Rather than ignore world events, the Olympics have been made memorable precisely because they have engaged in them. In the 1936 games in Berlin, for example, where the Olympic torch relay was first introduced, Jesse Owens’ four gold medals flew in the face of Nazi Aryan propaganda. Later, in 1968, in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute on the medal platform became an enduring icon of the civil rights movement. Time and again, real history and real politics have taken precedence in the Olympics over athletic achievement.

Would the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” have been as miraculous if the US men’s hockey team had defeated Denmark, rather than the Soviet Union? Did speed skater Joey Cheek’s donation of his gold medal winnings to refugees in Darfur detract from his athletic achievement? Clearly, the Olympics are made more compelling thanks specifically to their political resonance. Without it, they would simply be just another sports meet.

To suggest that sports and politics are separate entities, then, is to deny the real drama of the Olympic games. It’s also to whitewash the event’s long history of politically-inspired boycotts (1956 by countries protesting the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt, in 1980 by the US and others against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1984 by the Soviets in retaliation for the previous boycotts). Finally, though, and most importantly, to suggest that the Olympics are about sports and not politics is to undermine one of the last forums for real global exchange and debate.

As the United Nations shuffles between irrelevance and impotence, depending on the crisis at hand, the Olympics represents one of the last forums where countries from all over the world can meet on an equal footing. And in this meeting lies the true possibility of sports.
Defense budgets, territorial disputes, trade tariffs—none of these impinge upon rules of the games themselves, allowing every participant to gather under the same conditions. If the host countries would but follow the example set by their athletes, they would perhaps better understand just how radically political it is to come together in this fashion and set aside differences.

As a former co-owner of a baseball team, President Bush’s interest in sports is well-documented. In the case of the Olympics, however, Bush’s rooting is both near-sighted and disappointing. The Olympic torch is not some purifying flame that can remove the politics from the games themselves. Rather, it should remain a beacon to those who can appreciate the true power that sports have in forcing us to consider the political reality of the world we all, athletes included, share.

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