Monday, April 21, 2008

Donna de Varona Guest Column

Donna and I have been friends for a long time. I have tremendous respect for her and the role she has played in the development of sport and our society. In this editorial, Donna, two time Olympic Gold Medal winner and pioneering broadcast journalist, gives her perspective on the upcoming Beijing Olympics 2008.

Playing Sports or Politics

“One world, one dream” is China’s official motto for an Olympic celebration that is turning into an international public relations nightmare.

While China seeks to make the Beijing Olympics an unveiling of its emergence on the world stage, human rights activists are crashing the party, seeking to exploit the Olympics to focus attention on the status of Tibet, war-torn Darfur and host of other volatile human-rights issues. China finds itself on a hot seat that’s not likely to cool in the near term.

The official torch relay has ignited an explosion of protests, with more expected as the torch makes its journey over thousands of miles to Mount Everest through troubled Tibet.

In hindsight, what was the International Olympic Committee thinking when its membership voted to award the games to China?

In 1984, when the former Soviet Union called for a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics, China, after decades of isolation decided to attend. IOC members felt indebted. Beijing then bid on the 2000 games, but lost to Sydney, Australia. China bid again. This time the IOC, flush in cash and confidence decided to grant the games to the most populous country in the world. With China a nation in transition, the membership was eager to follow its mandate to take the games to new places where progress could be made.

For many decades the Olympics have been used to jump-start all kinds of projects and ambitions, and were seen as a way for postwar cities such as Tokyo in 1964, Munich in 1972 and Seoul in 1988 to reintroduce themselves to the world.

While the boycotts of three consecutive Olympics, namely an African boycott of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow games in 1980 and the retaliatory Soviet-initiated boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, threatened to undermine the games, good old capitalism, sophisticated marketing and the collapse of Soviet-style communism conspired in the mid to late 1980s to rescue the Olympic movement. It is now the most sought after multi-sport event in the world, commanding billions of dollars in television and sponsorship rights fees. Many of these millions are then given back to the Olympic membership as well as the IOC-sponsored solidarity programs, which are dedicated to fostering sport in developing countries, a contribution human rights groups have not acknowledged.

More than 200 countries will send some 10,000 athletes to Beijing. Double that amount, and that is the estimated number of journalists and media personnel who will travel to China to cover the games. While former Olympic cities have been criticized for building a host of white elephants when preparing and hosting the two-week festival, most cities claim an increase in tourism, the realization of valuable new infrastructure, the creation of new sporting federations and clubs, and the building of important networks with the media, governments, politicians and volunteers. All of these benefits, if and when realized, far outweigh the cost of staging the games.

But in hindsight, should the IOC have anticipated that the selection of China as a host nation would spark such controversy as we are witnessing today and in turn jeopardize the games?

While China has been busy building state-of-the-art sports facilities and modernizing as capital city, human rights activists have been developing strategies to use the games and the worldwide torch relay to launch their campaigns. The Olympics have become an irresistible magnet for causes, and now months before athletes are supposed to take advantage of years of hard work and dedication, they find themselves in the middle of a global explosion of consciousness, anger and disruption.

The staging of the global torch relay was enthusiastically promoted by the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC left itself vulnerable to China’s nationalistic ambitions when it reluctantly endorsed the high-risk operation. More “entertaining surprises,” according to a human a rights group, are in store for participants as the flickering flame of hope makes its way to Tibet, which has been closed down to tourism once more.

Last week in Beijing, during a conference with the executive board of the IOC and all national Olympic committees, an athletes’ representative, aware of others who share human rights concerns, called for clarification in respect to an athlete’s right to freedom of expression before, during and after the Games. There are many athletes who share the same human rights concerns but feel used and abused by those who have hijacked the torch relay. The president of the U.S. Olympians, Willie Banks, a victim of the 1980 and 1984 boycotts, argued in an open letter that “the time to influence the politics of China was seven years ago when China bid for the games.”

In 1986, I traveled through China and Tibet when I covered an all-woman attempt to climb Mount Everest for an ABC television special. I felt like I was traveling back centuries as we drove through ancient cities where water, basic goods and necessities were hard to obtain. Desperate people do desperate things, and for those hungering to make a statement about the conditions in Tibet, granting the Games to China provided a much anticipated global stage.

Considering the historical and continuing political unrest over the status of Tibet, what consideration was given to the athletes who compete in these games, especially when, as history demonstrates, a boycott, even a call to snub the opening ceremony, could undermine an athlete’s hard-won opportunity to experience what is currently being eclipsed by so many other agendas? The opportunity to compete against the best in the world in the best of conditions and to enjoy a worldwide gathering of athletes, artists and supporters should be the IOC’s No. 1 priority.
Instead, the athletes are now facing a variety of concerns regarding the games, none of which they can control.

Beijing’s air quality is unpredictable and on many days unhealthy. Olympic organizers and China’s leaders claim steps have been taken to alleviate pollution. There are plans to shut down coal and manufacturing plants as well as to limit the use of automobiles before and during the Olympics. These steps do not address the impact unpredictable sandstorms will have on the air quality during the games. The IOC in anticipation has declared events will be postponed if the air quality poses a danger to the athletes. It is a solution, but one that leaves the athletes dependent on factors out of their control.

Then there is the specter of a boycott. Past Olympic boycotts have clearly shown that they simply do not work. The Soviet Union did not change its policies in Afghanistan because the United States called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. A boycott of the Beijing Olympics could potentially cause the Chinese government and organizers to lose face, but to what end? China’s politics will not change, and a boycott only hurts the athletes who have no real voice, no real power and have spent a lifetime of sacrifice and training to compete in the Games no matter where they are held.

Right or wrong, the International Olympic Committee is a collection of optimists and idealists who, in the face of world politics, has always observed its mandate to take the games where the IOC perceives progress can be made. Yes, I am sure the membership did anticipate that these Olympics had the potential to become a vehicle for many causes. In this respect, one could argue that because the Olympics were awarded to Beijing, simmering issues have been given unprecedented media attention. When a host city is awarded the games, IOC mandates must be observed, including allowing access by the media. In this case China has opened its doors wider than ever, but surely not wide enough for an international press corps eager to explore issues beyond the field of play. In the best of worlds, when the games have come and gone, China will have faced and addressed its issues in more depth than ever before because Beijing placed itself in the very center of the Olympic spotlight.

For the “dream” of “one world” to become a reality, mankind and their governments will need to resist the temptation to impose their ideologies on others. Instead of meddling with the Olympic Games, world leaders should call for continued support for the Olympics and recommend that the games be off limits to political intervention. According to the Dalai Lama, who has always supported China as host of the Beijing Games, some efforts of diplomacy are underway between his representatives and the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama is in Seattle hosting a conference called Seeds of Compassion, a theme China’s government as well as Tibets human rights activists would benefit from adopting.

While athletes worldwide continue to train for their date with destiny, one can only hope that those who are using the Olympic platform for their own ends will refrain from doing exactly what they abhor. Torch carriers have embraced the global run, not to glorify China, but to champion the idea that the games provide a peaceful gathering place for those seeking common ground. By extinguishing the Olympic flame in Paris, by obstructing a torch runner’s path in London, by seeking to grab the torch from a child’s hand, by resorting to disruption, those who have taken these steps do not do justice to the concept of human rights.

Many athletes are supportive of a call to action in respect to Tibet and Darfur. But now they find themselves held hostage to events spinning out of control. The Olympic opening ceremony is scheduled in take place on Aug. 8. There are calls for politicians to stay away from Beijing. Perhaps, this would be a first step in giving the Games back to the athletes who have little power and few votes but are the heart and soul of a tradition that dates back to ancient times.

As Homer said, “The Olympian is a difficult foe to oppose.”
Hopefully, the protesters and politicians will allow our Olympians to compete in their very human, Herculean and apolitical contests, which the world’s spectators have enjoyed for so long, their disparate political views notwithstanding.

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