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Thursday, March 8, 2007

Politics in Sports

"The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn't separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That's why the Olympic Flame should never die."

Guess who was speaking?

Before you rack your brains any further, redeem yourself, for it was Adolf Hitler, commenting on the Olympics hosted by Nazi Germany in 1936. For those who say, "politics and sports may be uncomfortable bedfellows, but they are inseparable", Hitler's Games continue to reign as the master of Olympic scandals, or as a most famous politicization of sports.

The pomp and pageantry that characterize the Olympics today are believed to have been the legacy of the Berlin Games, which the Nazi regime exploited to bedazzle the world with the newly resurgent Germany in the aftermath of World War I. Ironic as it may seem, Hitler’s Olympics was also the first to feature the torch relay from the ruins of Olympia in Greece to the host city—a ritual faithfully performed at every subsequent Games.
A popular belief has it that Hitler’s abuse of the Games to demonstrate the superiority of the “Aryan” race was famously scuttled by black American athlete Jesse Owens, who scored a string of golds. But then, in the final analysis, Hitler must have been gratified by the Berlin Games, as Germany raked in more medals than all the other countries combined. Which is why, according to historian Richard D. Mandell, the 1936 Olympics marked "an important episode in the establishment of an evil political regime".

Just as the Games hosted by Nazi Germany was opposed by the United States and many Western democracies, the host of 2008 Olympics, yet another authoritarian regime, also faced international outrage, led chiefly by the Amnesty International. In fact, one of the reasons why China won the bid to host the 2008 Games was that it has pledged to address environmental concerns, human rights grievances, restrictive press laws, and censorship of Internet.

For instance, Wang Wei, secretary general of the Beijing Olympic Bid Committee was quoted by China Daily, 13 July 2001, as saying: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China. [...] We are confident that the Games coming to China not only promotes our economy but also enhances all social conditions, including education, health and human rights."

Rest assured, in the lead up to the Olympics, we will be hearing an earful of how China failed to live up to its promises—particularly as the world's biggest jailor of journalists for the seventh year running, is required to allow foreign scribes to report across the country, without the official permission previously required.

For now, as Beijing is spruced up for hosting the world’s first “Green Olympics", it is about time we whizzed through the politics of sport in China. In Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic, Susan Browell contends that, “sports were emptied of their muscular Christian moral content and replaced with contents that suited the needs of the politics and tenor of the times in China. The muscular Christian morality (sic) of fair play, citizenship, and democracy was replaced over time with Chinese discourses about national prestige and international competition”.

“While the physical structure of modern sports is fixed by international rules, there is quite a room for variability in the cultural beliefs that accompany them. An example of this variability was the importance of logic of ‘face’ in Chinese sports and the difficulty of translating the concept of ‘fair play’ into Chinese.”

Just as the Berlin Games changed the face of what was until then “modest affairs”, one can only hope that the Beijing Olympics will be anything but “different”—particularly given that China is a veteran in the game of mixing sports and politics—notably since the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s. To cite another instance, following the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, when Deng Xiaoping came into power, he celebrated it with the grandest national games up to that time.

Many contend that following the demise of the Cold War and the global IT boom, the Olympic Games increasingly serve as the arena for debate about modern nationhood and international relations. According to John MacAloon, "Being a nation, having a culture, are the chief requirements for claiming a rightful autonomous place in the global system." And, "to be a nation recognized by others and realistic to themselves, a people must march in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremonies procession." This is precisely why, Susan Browell sums it up: “The Olympic games have become the world’s largest single event for the production of national culture for international consumption.”

The Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964 and the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 marked respectively the emergence of Japan and Korea as world powers. Now, how will the Beijing Olympics inaugurate the “sleeping giant” onto the global stage?

The Olympic Charter may oppose any political abuse of sports and athletes, but the truth of the matter is, just as the original Olympics had their origins in the politics of the time, the modern Olympics have been the arena for wars, boycotts, protests, walkouts and terrorist attacks.

One therefore cannot fault Li Wei, the director of China’s Counter-terrorism Studies Centre, who was recently quoted by the state media as saying: "Nowhere can be 100 per cent safe, especially as terrorism is now a global issue and the Olympics will offer a mouth-watering opportunity for groups such as Al-Qaeda to spread terror."

Mr Li of course is spooked by the thought of the 1972 Munich Games, in which a group of militants, claiming to be members of the Palestinian organization “Black September”, slipped into the Olympic Village, killed two Israeli team members, and took nine other members hostage. Later, in a botched rescue attempt, all nine hostages were also killed in a shootout between the militants and the West German forces.

“The Munich attack," according to an author specializing in conflict studies, "was one of the most significant terrorist incidents of recent times, one that thrust the Palestinian cause into the world spotlight, and set the tone for decades of conflict in the Middle East.”
As they say, every opportunity has its pros and cons—not least of all the Olympics, which has a long history of being a double-edged sword, for both the host and its hostages. It thus appears Mr Li Wei will have his hands full, at least until the Games are over.
Dhondup Gyalpo

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