Olympic Torch Diplomacy | View to the West
by Peter Shelton
May 06, 2008 | 1031 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
My first stab at a column about the problems befalling the Olympic torch was a bust. I tried to make it humorous.

The scene was the top of Mount Everest. And the characters included a hapless team of Chinese climbers and a couple of Harold and Kumar-like stoner Americans, plus a novelty cigarette lighter with a picture of the Dalai Lama on it.

Didn’t work. Even as fiction. The Olympic torch just isn’t funny.

The Olympic torch (to use a Molly Ivins phrase) is as serious as stroke. It’s as serious, and as dangerous, as Dick Cheney. That’s why it has to spend most of its life in undisclosed locations. That’s why its route around cities like San Francisco has to be kept secret. And changed again at the last minute. That’s why the torch is surrounded, when it is out in the open, by a phalanx of Chinese guards who would hurl themselves on a hand grenade to avoid the perceived humiliation of an attack on the flame.

The torch is such a potent symbol, it presents such an opportunity for protest, that tens of thousands of people around the world are willing to risk jail or police beatings to intercept its course and make their grievances known.

Make no mistake, China deserves our wrath over its treatment of the people of Tibet. The dominant Han Chinese, in the name of modernization (and, less openly, the furtherance of a geo-political chess game with ancient enemy India) have practiced ruthless physical and cultural genocide. And then they have the gall to blame the violence on the exiled Dalai Lama.

In an earlier age, one without satellites and cell phones, China might have succeeded in wiping the Tibetans off the map. But this is now, and the world knows, and the Chinese can’t cover everything in silence and mountainous isolation.

And so the Olympics become a focus of political pressure. Anyone who didn’t see this coming was either naïve or living in a cave. (I take that back. The guys in caves have sat phones, too.)

Whether or not China with its dreadful human rights record should have been granted the privilege of hosting the 2008 Summer Games is moot now. Whether or not the Olympics should or can remain above the political fray is very much an open question.

One can argue that they have never been only about “higher, farther, faster.” The pure athletic ideal. There were the racial-superiority overtones to the 1936 Games in Berlin: Hitler and the American negro Jesse Owens. There was Munich and the bloody taking of Israeli hostages. There were the tit-for-tat boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.

To say, as President Bush has said, that the Games are just games, and he’s looking forward to attending the competition, is plain idiocy. (But then, we’re used to that from him.) The IOC has said in its defense that awarding Beijing the Games, with all of the scrutiny and attention that entails, will speed China’s entry into the family of “civilized” nations. Let’s hope that is the case.

Up at the Ouray School the other night we saw a display of student art. The assignment was to make a plaster representation of ones own hand in some sort of meaningful attitude, and then to embellish the result as needed to enhance the symbolism. There were hands in prayer wrapped in flower garlands. There was a hand giving the “hang-loose” surfer sign, complete with little surfboards and palm trees.

The one that grabbed me was a fist surrounded by a wire fence. The sculptor, Wheeler Juell, was there, and we talked. I told him his piece reminded me of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the podium after the 200 meters. They were protesting brutality and injustice, specifically the massacre of poor protestors in Mexico City and the continued oppression of blacks in the U.S.

The International Olympic Committee was shocked – shocked! – that the purity of the Games had been defiled. They sent Smith and Carlos home and tried to paint them as pariahs. But it didn’t work. They became heroes to anyone seeking social justice in the world.

Juell didn’t know about 1968. And he hadn’t actually had anything particular in mind, he told me, when he came up with his fist. But his eyes grew wider as he listened, and he said he’d give the Olympic legacy some serious thought.

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