olympic protests

Posted on April 8, 2008

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On the one hand, watching the world relay of the Olympic flame turn from a “Journey of Harmony” celebration into a debacle is rather satisfying, knowing that the protesters are using this golden opportunity to highlight and take the China government to task for its human rights abuses against its own minorities and its policies of supporting dictators in its thirst for raw materials.

But on the other, it is totally unfair to and unfortunate for the athletes who have spent the last four years sacrificing everything else by training hard and waiting for their moment of glory at the Games, only to have the once-in-a-lifetime event marred and their efforts overshadowed by politics rather than sports. With the life of an elite athlete being so short, it is a tough proposition to ask them to forgo the chance to compete.

Some are worrying that things might get even worse when the torch relay continues on its journey to more countries.

London and Paris both said they were prepared for any unrest but were overwhelmed, perhaps even stormed by surprise, at the level of chaos and opposition they encountered.

San Francisco is next and while the city is braced for trouble, being the hotbed of liberalism that it is, San Francisco is likely to witness protests on the scale similar to the preceding cities, if not larger.

Activists there had already made a headline-grabbing statement around the world even before the Olympic torch reached American soil, by hoisting Tibetan flags and huge banners proclaiming “One World, One Dream, Free Tibet 08” and “Free Tibet” on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

protesters unfurl banners and tibetan flags on golden gate bridge

Tove Paule, who heads the Norwegian Olympic Committee, suggests that the torch relay be halted.

“Should violent demonstrations occur in all the places the torch relay is visiting,” she said, “it is not a positive thing. It’s a shame, because the athletic achievements we will see will disappear in the politics.”

But Beijing is adamant that there will be no changes to the torch relay.

“No force can stop the torch relay of the Beijing Games,” said Beijing Olympic organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide.

Perhaps China should rethink its stand.

Undeniably, it wants to win in this battle of wills and to stop the worldwide relay of the flame will be seen as a defeat. There is also the little problem of how the hardline Chinese government is going to explain to people at home that their moment of glory has been snuffed out, when it has blacked out the scenes of melee in Paris and London on Chinese television.

But it cannot fail to see that the whole public relations exercise has descended into a fiasco. Security forces in the cities that the torch will pass through have to put up ridiculous amounts of forces and come up with ever more draconian measures to quell the protesters. What good is it to keep persisting with the relay if it would only serve as occasions for protesters to stand off against the police?

The sad thing is, the protests will not make a difference to the hardened mindsets of the Chinese government. It is only going to treat them as an insult to its opportunity to showcase China to the world and will instead use them to turn its people even more against the West. Unfortunately, many of the Chinese population, indoctrinated with the government’s line and swollen with ultra-nationalistic pride, will buy it.

Many say sports and politics should not mix. But a sports event with as global an audience as the Olympic Games inevitably carries political undertones. Countries vie to hold the Games for their individual prestige and pride. That is political.

China may claim that it is merely a sporting event but it wants to use it to fulfill political ends such as a chance to demonstrate China’s progress and economic prosperity to the world, and for internal propaganda. Whomever said that sports and the Olympics are only about the athletes and their achievements is lying, or deluded.

Just feel sorry for the athletes unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire.

(photos by AP and AFP)

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