Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Should We Use the Olympics?

There's been an undercurrent in the news lately about the awkwardness with China, which will host the Olympic Games in Beijing this year, even as it tramples all over international norms in an effort to bring resources home to fuel its growing economy. Now there isn't a "developed" nation on this Earth that hasn't behaved unscrupulously on its climb into the world's economic elite. Colonial abuses, slash-and-burn agriculture, deforestation, displacement of native peoples, child labor, sweetheart deals with foreign leaders to exploit local resources — it's all there in the historical record. No one is innocent, to be sure — not even the U.S.

Right now, though, the world leader in amoral economic policy is the Chinese government. If your country has resources the Chinese economy can use, the Party will do business. It doesn't matter that you're promoting the wholesale slaughter, rape, and displacement of ethnic minorities, or that your military government just defied the international community and gave shoot-to-kill orders on peaceful protesters. Got oil, Sudan? Got pipeline prospects, Myanmar? Let's talk.

Which brings us to the Olympics, which supply an occasion for people to call attention to China's complicity in human rights disasters around the globe. Or not.

It occurs to me that, more than any other institution, the Olympics are a universally-shared human value. Sure — al Qaeda won't be sending a delegation of athletes anytime soon, notwithstanding its members' well-documented tire-course expertise. (They only do obstacle-course competitions on Battle of the Network Stars.) But nihilistic transnational terror groups excepted, everybody else loves the Olympics. Everybody believes in the Olympics, whatever else they may believe.

And so I wonder: given the Olympics' status as a shared, transcendent value, should we be using it to promote our sublunary politics, however benign and upright our intentions? I'm of two minds here. I genuinely believe that there are certain baseline human values that should enjoy the same worldwide appeal and enthusiasm that the Olympics do. Those values — life, liberty, autonomy, equal treatment, the rule of law, freedom of expression, etc. — are certainly more important to me than a shot-put contest. If we can exploit an institution like the Olympics to advance these values, then we certainly should do it. Right?

On the other hand, as I just noted, it's fair to say that the Olympics are the only value we all hold in common in this so-often vicious world. That counts for something. It counts for a lot, actually. President Carter's boycott of Moscow 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan didn't accomplish much. The Eastern Bloc's retaliatory decision to eschew the L.A. games in 1984 was predictable and — dare I say it? — lame. We look back on the boycotts as pathetic gestures, instances of down-and-dirty politics sullying an institution that we hold very dear to our hearts, and that (we hope) will continue to survive and thrive after petty conflicts like the Cold War are long gone.

We'll never be able to distill the politics out of our Olympics. In fact, I would argue that we shouldn't try. Politics give the Olympics a lot of their dramatic kick, after all: we all grew up pulling for our aw-shucks regular American kids to go higher, faster, farther than the affectless Frankenroiders from East Germany. The competition offered us all a kind of safety valve: we were able to see the two camps compete — capitalism vs. communism, West vs. East played out on ice, in a pool, in the gym, rather than with ICBMs. And what better storyline is there than Jesse Owens, the epitome of grace in competition, conquering his Aryan rivals in Berlin in 1936? Without politics, Jesse Owens is Carl Lewis — a great athlete, but not a hero. (Did I say that Jesse was a Buckeye?)

The Olympics are The It-Institution. Off the record, six drinks deep into a Saturday night, the United Nations tells the bartender it wishes it could be the Olympics. No other idea has ever been so broadly embraced by the world community as M. de Coubertain's. Consider China as a classic example: this government goes around the world arming genocidaires and could give a crap who complains. But give it a shot at hosting the Olympic Games, and suddenly the Chinese are desperate to impress the international community. That's cachet, people, and you'd really like to think that cachet could be leveraged to bring the world something bigger than impenetrable performance art (though I do love you, Björk, more than you'll ever know) followed by two weeks of televised sports. On the other hand, I'm not sure who to trust to get that done, and I worry that the effort will spoil the Olympics — and we'll end up a more fragmented world community than we are even now.

Thoughts? Help?

4 comments:

Ethan Allen Hawley said...

On queue, http://www.boston.com/news/world/asia/articles/2008/02/14/china_regrets_spielbergs_darfur_decision/

This points out some of the difficulty, namely that China doesn't care so much and will feign outrage at Western criticism.

Getting anything from them on the foreign raltions front may be tough, but there is a very good chance they embarass themselves without any help from us. No matter what they do, the environmental disaster that is modern China will be on display for two weeks. So at least we've got that.

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