A blog by Barry Edelson

Torch Song Threnody

What Was the IOC Thinking
When It Gave the Games to China?

What exactly are the Olympics for? This is the main question prompted by the recent demonstrations by the good people of London, Paris and San Francisco against the silly procession of the Olympic torch. Granted, there are 100 causes that regularly draw large numbers of people in these cities onto the streets, but that certainly does not delegitimize the urgent cause of Tibet, and only underscores the absurdity of the Olympic enterprise. Are we to accept at face value the Olympic movement's threadbare creed of friendly competition and international brotherhood, or, after this latest humiliating episode, are we finally ready to acknowledge that the Olympics is just another sporting event and as subject to the political winds as anything else?

The former argument is based on the thoroughly discredited premise that gathering athletes from all countries in one place, and focusing the world's attention for two weeks every few years on the pageantry of peaceful cooperation, may have a salutary effect on the baser ambitions of nation-states. Well, the modern Olympic movement began in 1896, and we need only attempt to avert our eyes from the wars, genocide, massacres, atrocities and general mayhem of the last century to put that canard to rest forever. Perhaps some of the athletes and a handful of spectators are indeed sufficiently moved by the experience of participating in humankind's largest sports event to embrace the cause of a greater humanity. But the rest of the planet has singularly failed to be impressed by its purported message, not even pausing from its barbarous pursuits for the few seconds it takes for a diver to drop 10 meters into the water.

In the 1980s, when the idea of an American "dream team" of professional basketball players was being floated, Larry Bird said that if there were a war against one of these other countries he would gladly fight, but that he had no intention of playing basketball against them. Of course, by the time the 1992 games in Barcelona rolled around he had evidently changed his mind. But his original sentiment was actually a more honest assessment of the reality of international competition than all of the grandiloquent justifications for the games promulgated by the IOC and its boosters all over the world. Nations do not send their athletes to the Olympics to see them play fair and do their best. They send them there to win and to show that they are better than other nations. If you disagree, then explain why every newspaper on the planet publishes a day-by-day count of the medals won by each country? Why do the athletes represent any country at all? Shouldn't their nationalities be irrelevant to the pleasurable experience of watching the world's best in head-to-head competition?

Sure. If you believe that, you have obviously never watched a soccer match between two members of the eminently civilized European Union. It is unlikely that the ancient Greeks, when they first invented the idea of organized athletic competition, fooled themselves into believing that the Olympic games would promote understanding and advance the cause of peace. Their Olympics was a cruel and unforgiving contest, in which the winners were lauded beyond all reason and the losers utterly humiliated: a fitting mirror of the brutal wars of annihilation commonly practiced by the city-states in which they lived and for which they died.

The latter argument, that the Olympics is just sports, is, naturally, the very argument now put forward by the Chinese government and, shamefully, by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself. In the face of a rising tide of hostility against the upcoming Beijing games, China and the IOC naturally wish that people would stop turning the Olympic games into a platform for Tibetan independence or any other political cause. However, one may well ask what the IOC was thinking when it awarded the games to a Communist police state in the first place. Presumably, the same thing the people who run the games were thinking when they awarded them to Nazi Germany in 1936 and the Soviet Union in 1980. Even so, had it not been for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the year before, it is unlikely that the United States and other Western nations would have had a pretext to boycott the games — as if the gulag wasn't reason enough.

The reluctance of other nations to be seen to tolerate the degenerate behavior of the host country is really beside the point. The IOC ought not to put other nations and their athletes in such a difficult position in the first place. If the point of the games is merely to hold a gigantic, enjoyable sporting event every four years, then it ought to be easy enough to find locations in reasonably peaceable nations. There is never any shortage of applicants in the host-city sweepstakes. But it's hard to get a city to cough up the billions of dollars necessary to organize an Olympics, particularly the summer games, without a dollop of grandeur thrown in, too. After all, what's the attraction for a city like New York, London or Paris, none of which are lacking in sports entertainment? The attraction, of course, is that the games have a certain caché, and that caché is predicated upon the notion that the Olympics is not just other sporting event. And that notion is precisely why disreputable countries desperately want to host the games, and why the IOC inevitably finds itself hoist upon its own petard by allowing them to do so.

The corruption, ineptitude and short-sightedness of the self-appointed, self-regulated IOC is well documented. There is no point in reviewing the farce that pretends to be its decision-making process, except to say that any idiot could have predicted that awarding the games to China would be trouble. When a city in most Western countries applies to host the games, it is the city, not the country, that makes the application and shoulders most of the financial and organizational burden. Even if a regional or national government does support the effort, it invariably does so for economic reasons, not to confer legitimacy on its political system. Any country that feels the need to boost its international standing by hosting the Olympic games ought to be disqualified out of hand. And if anyone seriously believes that the city of Beijing sought the games all by itself and only to boost its civic pride, then by all means they should go to the games this summer, breathe liberally of the city's foul air, and have a good time.

Some say that if the games were held in the United States this year, there would be protests in many countries about Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and so on, and that we are in no position to condemn China. The comparison, of course, is odious. First, Americans, unlike the long-suffering natives of Tibet, live in a free society in which they are able to lead the world's protests against the objectionable activities of their own government. Second, few people would confuse an Olympic bid by a particular American city as an expression of the federal government's noxious international policies. And most important of all, Americans get to elect a new president this year, and the incumbent, come hell or high water, will leave office next January. When China can make the same claim, then it may be time to put in a call to the IOC.

In the current unavoidable situation, athletes and their governments have few good choices to make. Individual athletes ought not to be made to feel that competing in their sport is tantamount to conferring legitimacy on a repressive foreign government. After all, they didn't choose the venue. On the other hand, their presidents and prime ministers, who have failed time and again to hold the IOC to account, are in a more serious bind. Their personal boycott of the opening ceremonies is the least they can do, and probably the most they will do. And who will miss them? China will bristle, but being a totalitarian state, it is well-practiced at putting a good face on humiliations both great and small.

No one is seriously talking about a boycott, á la 1980 or 1984, but that is only because the world is long accustomed to the Chinese occupation of Tibet. If China starts growling at Taiwan again, all bets are off — as they should have been all along.

April 13, 2008

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