Too much of the discussion about the
role of sports in international politics gets cut short by mention of
the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. In that year President
Jimmy Carter forced our already trained and selected athletes to stay
at home rather than compete in Moscow while Russian troops occupied
Afghanistan. If only he knew that the Afghan invasion would lead, in
one short decade, to the collapse of the Soviet Union, he might have
celebrated the Kremlin’s foolhardy decision.
But Carter pulled the plug on our team,
and for years sports commentators have made careers profiling the
tragic stories of the lost potential of athletes who were unable to
attend the games as a result. The moral of their vignette is frequently
that politics should have nothing to do with sports, which is silly and
unrealistic. Just ask Jackie Robinson.
As far as I know, no one is suggesting a
replay of 1980. The team is going to Beijing to run, jump, swim, spin,
throw things, shoot at things, ride horses and all the rest. The
question for the politicians is this: Why can’t you take this moment to
remind the Chinese that they have in fact agreed to respect
internationally accepted human rights norms, in exchange for being
allowed to host the games?
China’s leaders made the promises
expected of a suitor when they wooed the International Olympic
Committee back in 2001 to get the nod for holding the games there
starting Aug. 8. They promised clean air. They promised freedom of the
press. And they promised open Internet access for visitors, especially
journalists. None of these promises have been met, and there is no way
to enforce them. Once the Olympic die is cast, there is no turning back.
It’s pretty obvious that the IOC didn’t
take the process all that seriously. I mean, how do you promise clean
air? Even Disney World doesn’t promise good weather when you book a
What would it have cost George Bush to
make it clear to the Chinese that he would not attend the Olympic
opening ceremonies while the regime holds people prisoner just for
disagreeing with it? Why would the president of the United States want
to sit with his counterparts around the world in a stadium which was
built, according to numerous rights groups around the world, largely by
unpaid migrant laborers?
It would be nice to have a John Carlos
and a Tommy Smith, the runners who protested the treatment of blacks in
the United States by raising their fists in the air during an award
ceremony in Mexico City in 1968. They took a risk and left a lasting
image of what a dignified, thoughtful protest action can be.
Sometime in the next few weeks we may
see such a gesture by someone as yet unknown, perhaps a gymnast or a
swimmer concerned with Tibet and willing to jeopardize their future as
a corporate representative to make their solidarity known. There will
be the armbands, the wristbands and the subtle signs that the athletes
are carrying their idealism beyond the playing fields into the real
world. In those moments they will be fulfilling the too-often betrayed
hope that the Olympics actually can contribute to a more unified world.
Each gesture of this sort will be
welcome by people serving sentences in what the Chinese still like to
call “education through labor” camps.
But it is not Melo’s responsibility to
lead the world. It is not his job to teach men and women who know full
well right from wrong just to do the right thing. That is the job of
the political leaders, and one more test George W. Bush has failed
miserably. One hundred seventy-three days to go.
Ed Griffin-Nolan’s Sanity Fair column appears every week in the Syracuse New Times, which is not sending a correspondent to cover the Olympic Games in Beijing.