The Unsnuffable Fire

Oh yeah, I am mad. After watching Tibetan monks get clubbed on Al-Jazeera, hearing about gay activists being jailed for being, well, gay activists (most notable Hu Jia), and hearing ad nauseam about Chinese labour conditions, the other day I came to the jumping conclusion that perhaps the time of the Olympics had passed.

To be honest, the feeling isn’t exactly new. It began sometime after fall of ’88 when Ben Johnson’s 9.79 second 100m record went from being an incredible feat of human achievement to someone’s botched science experiment. From Ben Johnson’s shame, sport has clearly evolved. It is not about who does drugs or fiddles with their blood or changes their body’s chemistry in mysterious ways, it is about who gets caught. And once every four years, as I am forced to watch Spanish runners circle around tracks like greyhound dogs (God love ’em), I invariably make some cynical sneer about the sillyness of it all.

Nonetheless, the sporting aspect of the Olympics has always been only a part of what the games are. From its origins, the Olympics was a creature of nineteenth century nationalism, where entire nation-states could easily be rallied to kill, bomb and other mutilate one another in the name of the homeland, freedom, or any number of abstract, but heart-warming, notions. A parallel and nobler initiative was the Olympics, which drew upon primitive instincts of inclusion and tribalism, where our best runners, weightlifters and shot-putters could make us proud. The Olympics brought us together as nations by pitting us against each other as people.

For the most part this hasn’t changed. National flags continue to be hoisted and grating anthems are still blared, evoking lukewarm feelings of pride and satisfaction, even though there is often an asterisk and the end of many wins. *That athlete is really from another ________ (choose a random Third World county) or *this athlete says she is from __________ (insert an oppressed region) and not from ___________ (insert oppressing state). In recent years, the games has taken on a new twist with the idea of the being profitable and, after Barcelona’s huge success in 1992, a means of urban, if not national renewal. Corporate interest, not far beyond, see billions in infrastructure projects as well as marketing opportunities. All in all, it is hard not to be cynical.

Politics too has its role in the Olympics. Who can forget Hitler’s use of the 1936 Berlin Olympics to bring glory the new Germany? The 1980 Olympics too became political when State Department foreign policy wonks decided to make an issue of, oh, let me remember, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The 1984 games in Los Angeles were boycotted by the USSR for obvious reasons. The Basques whipped up complaints in the run-up to the Barcelona games in 1992. In 2000, Australian Aborigines sought global attention for their plight.

As it turns out, this potential problems for this years games were apparent as Toronto was outmanoeuvred by Beijing for political reasons in being this year’s host city a decade ago. It is hard to imagine that the powers that were did not recognize that China had some deep political and social problems that couldn’t–and wouldn’t–be fixed over a few years time. More to the point, it is hard to imagine that Olympic President Antonio Samaranch and Vice-President Dick Pound did not envision that a Beijing Olympics wouldn’t turn into this season’s kicking dog.

So, if the games have been hijacked from Chinese tyrants for legitimate reasons, so be it. Who can’t forget Jesse Owens and his affront to 1930s Nazism?

And that is exactly the point of this years games. While Tibetans have suffered some fifty years under Chinese control, surviving Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution, ethnic dilution, capitalism and even Richard Gere, the world sits up and cries foul when in happens during an Olympic year. Gay activists and human labour conditions suddenly become important.

If this is the case, every god-fearing dictatorship in the world should be given the opportunity to hold these majestic games. So here is my partial list of future Olympic cities:

  1. Harare, Zimbabwe
  2. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (wouldn’t it be great to see Crown Prince Abdullah take about human rights?)
  3. Ashgabat “The City of Love”, Turkmenistan
  4. Havana, Cuba
  5. Lagos, Nigeria

With a list like this, I’m going to be hot under the collar for a while. As soon as I finished getting worked up about Mugabe in Zimbabwe, I’ll have to start pulling my hair out over foreign workers, women’s rights and Allah-knows-what in Riyad. Good times indeed.

(Just in case you missed the Al-Jazeera clips, here they are.)


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