The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest.
"We believe the Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations and we hope that all people attending the games recognize the importance of this."Thus spake Samsung Electronics, one of 12 major corporate sponsors of the Olympics, when asked last week whether recent events in Tibet were causing them any concern. Coca-Cola, another Olympics sponsor, has stated that while it would be inappropriate "to comment on the political situation of individual nations," the company firmly believes "that the Olympics are a force for good." The chairman of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, was also quick to declare that "a boycott doesn't solve anything"—just as quick as he was to dismiss the demonstrators who waved a black banner showing five interlocked handcuffs, in mockery of the Olympic symbol, at Monday's lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece. "It is always sad to see such a ceremony disrupted," he declared, rather pompously.
And no one was surprised: Companies that have invested millions in sponsorship deals and Olympic bureaucrats who have invested years trying to justify their controversial decision to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing are naturally inclined to use those sorts of arguments. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us have to believe them.
Look a bit closer, in fact, and none of those statements holds up.
A boycott doesn't solve anything. Well, doesn't it? Some boycotts do help solve some things. The boycott of South African athletes from international competitions was probably the single most effective weapon the international community ever deployed against the apartheid state. ("They didn't mind about the business sanctions," a South African friend once told me, "but they minded—they really, really minded—about the cricket.") The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics helped undermine Soviet propaganda about the invasion of Afghanistan and unify the Western world against it. I don't know for certain, but I'm guessing that from the Soviet perspective, the Soviet bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics four years later was successful, too. Presumably, it was intended to solidify Soviet elite opposition to the United States in the Reagan years, and presumably, it helped.
The Olympics are a force for good. Not always! For those who don't remember, let me remind you that the 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, were an astonishing propaganda coup for Hitler. It's true that the star performance of Jesse Owens, the great black American track-and-field star, did shoot some holes in the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority. But Hitler still got what he wanted out of the games. With the help of American newspapers such as the New York Times, which opined that the games put Germany "back in the family of nations again," he convinced many Germans, and many foreigners, to accept Nazism as "normal." The Nuremburg laws were in force, German troops had marched into the Rhineland, Dachau was full of prisoners, but the world cheered athletes in Berlin. As a result, many people, both in and out of Germany, reckoned that everything was just fine, and Hitler could be tolerated a bit longer.
The Olympic Games are not the place for demonstrations. Aren't they? Actually, the Olympics seem an ideal place for demonstrations. Not only is the world's press there with cameras running, the modern Olympics were set up with a political purpose: to promote international peace by encouraging healthy competition between nations. Hence the emphasis on national teams instead of individual competitors; hence the opening and closing ceremonies—since copied by other sporting events—as well as the national flags and national anthems.
These elements make the Olympics special, different from other international competitions, but they also sometimes give the games a nasty edge. The old United States vs. Soviet Union basketball rivalry; the parade of East German women with husky voices; the lists of who has won how many medals—all of that is evidence of the decades-old politicization of the Olympics. There were black power demonstrations at the 1968 Mexico City Games. A Palestinian group attacked and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Games. Australian aborigines protested at the 2000 Sydney Games. And everything associated with the 2008 Olympics, from the massive Beijing building program, to the Olympic torch that is due to be carried across Tibet, to the Chinese Olympic Committee's Web site (it describes China's commitment to promote "mass sporting activities" on an "extensive scale, improving the people's physique, and spurring the socialist modernization of China") is blatantly designed to promote the domestic and international image of the Chinese state.
No wonder, then, that everyone who hates or fears China, whether in Burma, Darfur, Tibet, or Beijing, is calling for a boycott. And the Chinese government and the IOC are terrified that they will succeed. No one involved in the preparations for this year's Olympics really believes that this is "only about the athletes," or that the Beijing Games will be an innocent display of sporting prowess, or that they bear no relation to Chinese politics. I don't see why the rest of us should believe it, either.
Photograph of protester and flag by Michael Steele/Getty Images.