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The Olympics: a very political game

Human rights groups say giving Beijing the Games would reward political repression and other abuses
Human rights groups say giving Beijing the Games would reward political repression and other abuses  


By CNN's Joe Havely

(CNN) -- Ask any member of the International Olympic Committee worth their salt and they’ll tell you that politics and sport do not mix.

Ask a member of the Beijing 2008 bid committee and they’ll probably say the same thing.

Of course, a lot depends on what people class as politics.

On the sensitive subject of human rights -- around which most opposition to Beijing’s bid was centered -- the Chinese leadership argues the issue is simply not a political one.

Instead they say it is a difference of culture, dressed up as a political stick used to engage in a bout of China-bashing.

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On the other hand, pressure groups such as Amnesty International and many (mainly) Western-based politicians argue that the rights issue comes down to one of morality.

For the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to award Beijing the Games is, they say, tantamount to ignoring widespread torture, detention without trial, political repression, summary execution and other denials of basic human rights.

Advocates of a Beijing Olympics contend the games would help improve the human rights situation and hasten political and social change.

It is an argument that will probably continue long after the flame of the 2008 Games has been extinguished.

Principles Vs practice

Under the Olympic charter, one of the objectives of the IOC is to oppose any political abuse of sport and athletes.

But through the history of the modern Olympic movement it is hard to find a Games that hasn’t in some way or other been influenced by politics.

Even the original Olympics had their origins in the politics of the time, designed to bring together the competing and often warlike city-states of Ancient Greece.

The modern Olympics too have been the stage for or been subject to wars, boycotts, protests, walkouts and terrorist attacks -- all of which come under the broad banner of politics.

In 1920, Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary and Turkey were barred from competition because of their role in World War I. In the post-World War II Games of 1948, staged in London, Germany and Japan were both excluded.

Perhaps one of the most infamous examples of the politicization of the Games was in 1936, when Hitler’s Nazi Germany played host to the Eleventh Summer Olympiad.

Fanning the flame

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were used by Hitler as a showcase for Nazi Germany
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were used by Hitler as a showcase for Nazi Germany  

Seizing the opportunity to showcase the Third Reich, Hitler poured vast resources into Berlin’s sporting facilities and set about putting on a spectacular that would make Germany the envy of the world.

Until then the Games had been modest affairs, short on the pomp and ceremony that has come to characterize the event today.

The Berlin Games were very different -- the first to feature a lavish opening ceremony with parades designed to show off Hitler’s newly resurgent Germany.

It was also the first to feature the torch relay from the ruins of Olympia in Greece to the host city -- a tradition which, despite its dubious origins, has been performed at every subsequent Games.

Nonetheless Hitler’s efforts to use the Games as a demonstration of the superiority of the “Aryan” race were famously scuppered by black American athlete Jesse Owens who scored a string of golds in the 100m, 200m, long jump and the 4 x 100m relay. Thirty-six years later, when the games returned to what by then was West Germany, there was another more violent demonstration of the use of the Games as a political platform.

Black September

Few who were alive at the time can forget the stunned silence as the world watched events unfold on one day at the Munich 1972 Games.

Munich 1972: The face of terror comes to the Olympic Games
Munich 1972: The face of terror comes to the Olympic Games  

Early in the morning of September 5, Palestinian gunmen claiming to be from the Black September guerilla organization stormed into the Israeli quarters of Olympic village.

The gunmen demanded the release of 200 Arab prisoners from Israeli jails and safe passage or themselves and their hostages out of Germany.

By 11pm on the same day all 11 Israeli hostages, five of the gunmen and one German police officer were dead -- all but two the result of a botched rescue attempt.

But most political use of the Olympic movement -- and of sport in general -- has tended to focus on boycotts or universally agreed bars on the participation of a specific nation.

South Africa, for example, was excluded from the Olympic movement from 1960 until the Barcelona Games of 1992 because of its apartheid laws.

In 1980, the Moscow Games were hit by a U.S.-led western boycott called in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier.

Four years later, in a tit-for-tat response characteristic of the Cold War, the Soviet Union then led a boycott of the following Games held in Los Angeles.

High hopes

Sydney 2000: In an optimistic sign North and South Korea march as one in the opening ceremony
Sydney 2000: In an optimistic sign North and South Korea march as one in the opening ceremony  

But there have also been occasions when, instead of protest, the Games have been used to send a message of political hope for the future.

In the Sydney 2000 Games for example, teams from North and South Korean marched as one at the opening ceremony -- although they competed as separate nations.

In the same games, a hurriedly agreed compromise allowed the newly emergent nation of East Timor to compete in the Games under the Olympic flag.

Now the Olympic movement faces another challenge with the decision over the location of the 2008 Games.

Beijing’s loss of its 2000 bid in favor of Sydney was blamed largely on the issue of human rights and, warranted or not, most Olympic delegates agree that a vote for the city this time still carried with it a lot of political baggage.

Politics and sport might be uncomfortable bedfellows, but on past experience at least it seems they are inseparable.







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