Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Olympics and Politics

The 2008 Olympic opening ceremonies begin tomorrow night and that is nearly always an exciting event.

Let me confess that I'm an not an avid Olympics fan. I watch certain contests: track and field, gymnastics, swimming and a few others. If there is a human interest story or two, I'll follow that on the news. But, for the most part, I'm a pretty casual observer.

I'm usually interested in the drama that is sometimes associated with the host country as well as the attempt to present the Olympics as an international phenomenon that transcends politics. Usually that backdrop and the drama prove that the Olympics is anything but transcendent when it comes to politics. And I really question whether or not that can ever be the case.

Don't get me wrong, I actually believe that the Olympics is a wonderful stage that provide a thrilling mixture of national pride, athletic struggle and competition. But I think its also asking too much to believe that the purity of the contest be above the political struggles that dominate our existence in the interval between Games.

When Jesse Owens competed in the 1936 Olympics, it was clearly viewed as a contest between American democratic ideals and Nazi Germany's ill conceived notion of a 'superior Aryan race'. Owens four gold medals are viewed, even today, as a historic athletic feat, and a symbolic triumph of American values over an evil system.

Forty years ago Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists in what has been characterized as defiant protest of the plight of African-Americans. It was a jolt of politics interjected by two men who refused to ignore the realities of their everyday existence for the sake of sport.


In the Olympic Games of 1972 in Munich, Germany, the horrific murder of eleven Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorist, scarred those games in such a way that, arguably this human tragedy and catastrophic political event is just about all that many of us think of when we think of that Olympiad.

Even Muhammad Ali's rehabilitated image, as he carried the torch and lit the cauldron in the opening ceremony at the 1996 Olympics was a signal at how political wounds had heald somewhat, relative to the pain of the Viet Nam war. Did it prove that the poetry of athletic competition was superior to the prose of political turmoil? Was it a sign that athletics is a way of sanitizing our reality, if only for a moment, and help us ignore the ugliness that can sometimes underscore what lay beneath the surface of our patriotism? Maybe there is something like that to all of this.

But perhaps even in our trying to forget - we are forced to remember.

Now in Beijing, China we are faced with how to celebrate human athletic prowess against the backdrop of a country whose record of human rights has been judged nothing short of abysmal by the rest of the world. The Olympics was awarded to China, with the promise that there would be gains in human rights forthcoming. Hardly anyone is satisfied with the progress thus far. But how do you challenge the host country of the Olympics without embarrassing them and dragging politics into the greatest athletic event in the world?

I don't know that there is an answer to this. But maybe its too much expect that we wouldn't think of politics on a world stage between countries for whom this represents not only recognition, but respect of power and place in the world.

To think that you can do that without engaging in politics (or religion for that matter, but that's another story), may be a little naive. But if the metaphor of athletics shows that we can strive to create a world where we can compete, with dignity, and honor, and both winners and losers can be treated with respect, perhaps that's the best we can hope for.
And to be honest, that's not all that bad.

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