Wednesday, April 16, 2008

To Go or Not To Go: The Olympic Dilemma

There are no easy solutions to the dilemma of what to do about the Olympics in Beijing. The solution, of course, would be not to award the Olympics to totalitarian states in the first place, but that toothpaste has long since been squeezed and is not going back in the tube. And ending the Olympics hardly seems like a likely or even viable possibility. None of the options that remain are ideal.

Those who argue that the Olympics is no place for politics have no conception that the Olympics have always been politicized if not political. Nearly every Olympics since at least 1936 has been fraught with politics, whether overt or covert. Wishing something does not make it so, and this includes the dream of an Olympics free of the dirty realities of politics. And the irony, of course, is that those who most would screech about not attending the Olympics are those who would also screech about meeting face to face or otherwise engaging with dictators or dictatorships.

I am torn. We don't want to reward China's noxious human rights record, and there is no doubting that any country that attends the Beijing games will be rewarding China in publicity, in tourism, and in legitimacy. One can argue that the Olympics are not the place to make this stand, and I respect that, but no one can seriously pretend that China does not benefit in myriad ways from hosting these games. The country will put its best face forward, and most observers will not know the difference because they will be steered clear of the hutongs, local dissent will have long since been crushed and most anything that does not re-enforce the image China wants to portray will be whitewashed and censored, and once the games actually commence, international protest will resemble an echo chamber. On the home front, any debate about China will mostly be about scoring points and using the issue as a political cudgel rather than constructing an ideal policy.

Perhaps it is the athlete in me that realizes too that while they are a tiny constituency, the athletes for whom Beijing represents the culmination of a dream deserve consideration. For better or for worse, the Olympics are the apex of global athletic competition for the majority (or at least a huge plurality) of athletes in the majority of sports. I hate the idea of taking away one of these opportunities from them that comes only every four years. Compared to the geopolitical questions involved this may be small beer, silly even, but once a jock, always a jock.

One hope I have is that the media will not sanitize the context in which the games will be played and thus will make the best of the situation. the problem with this is that the majority of media members sent to Beijing will be sportswriters whose mandate is not politics, and whose views most of us do not, in the majority of cases, care about. Jay Mariotti, as just one example among many, is a dullard when it comes to his bailiwick of sports. Do you really want his take on global politics? Nonetheless, if NBC and the news networks keep their eye on what China is and what it is not, which is to say, if they are willing to peel away the veneer that China will skillfully present, perhaps daylight really will prove to be the best disinfectant.

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