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The Olympics and Politics Collide


A wide range of political groups is using the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games as an opportunity to pressure the Chinese government to change its human rights practices. Some argue that the Olympics should be separate from politics. But many analysts say the Games have often been used for political purposes.

Former Olympic swimmer Nikki Dryden of Canada is a member of Team Darfur, a coalition of some 300 athletes seeking to raise awareness about the violence in Darfur and China's ties with Sudan.

"When China decided to host the Olympic Games, they made a promise, a global promise to the sporting community that they would uphold the values of the Olympic Games. Those values are to promote peace and human dignity. That's not happening in Darfur," says Dryden. "And I think it's a perfect opportunity for us to draw attention to the relationship between the Chinese government and the Sudanese government, especially as we head into the Olympics, which start in August."

A Flame of Protest

Whether the cause is Darfur, Tibet or China's overall human rights record, a wide range of groups is using the Beijing Olympic Games as a platform for protests against the Chinese government.

Demonstrators in France, the United States and other countries disrupted the Olympic torch relay. The protests have sparked an outpouring of nationalistic anger in China. Beijing says the Olympics should be free of political interference.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, says, "What we have seen is not protest, but cruel and violent attacks on the Olympic flame, which belongs to the whole world. This should be denounced by all people who value fairness and justice all over the world because they have damaged the interests of all people."

Calls for a U.S. Boycott

In the United States, the three major presidential contenders have called on President George Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies in Beijing, absent major policy changes by the Chinese government. Democratic Senator, Hillary Clinton says, "The President should not attend the opening ceremonies at the Olympics."

Democratic Senator, Barack Obama, "I think it's appropriate for the President to decline an invitation to the opening ceremonies." Republican presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain says, "I would not go to the opening ceremonies."

President Bush says he has not changed his plan to attend the Olympics. Mr. Bush says that every time he meets with Chinese President Hu Jintao, he brings up the issue of human rights. "I don't view the Olympics as a political event. I view it as a sporting event. And I have brought up religious freedom and Darfur and Burma and the Dalai Lama before the Olympics. During the Olympics and after the Olympics, I'll bring it up. I view this as an opportunity to support U.S. athletes," says Mr. Bush.

Author David Wallechinsky is Vice President of the International Society of Olympic Historians. He notes that if Mr. Bush follows through with his plans, he will be the first sitting U.S. president to attend an Olympics opening ceremony outside of the United States. Wallechinsky adds that the Olympics have often been used for political purposes.

"The Olympics are part of the world and politics are part of the world. So it's an illusion to think that you can separate the Olympics from politics. Even the International Olympic Committee [, or IOC,] has not hesitated to make political judgments. For example, the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from the Olympics for more than 25 years because of its apartheid policy," says Wallechinsky. "Also, in 1992, the Olympic movement banned Yugoslavia from taking part in team sports -- only individuals could take part. So it's not as if the IOC has said, 'Oh you know, it's just about sports, we're not going to get involved in politics.'"

A History of Politics

Wallechinsky points to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and Adolf Hitler as the first time politics entered into the Games in a major way. "When Hitler took power, there was a great deal of discussion in the Olympic Movement and also around the world. 'What should we do? Should we move the Olympics? Should we boycott the Olympics?' In the end, nothing was done and the Olympics were held in Nazi Germany," Wallechinsky adds.

In 1936, African American track and field athlete Jesse Owens defied Nazi ideas of Aryan superiority by winning four gold medals. In 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos used a black power salute during the medals ceremony to protest racial discrimination in the United States. In 1972 at the Munich Games, Palestinian terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes. In 1980, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. And in 1984, Soviet bloc countries retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles Games. But many political activists say they have learned that Olympic boycotts only hurt athletes, and fail to bring about political and social change.

Human rights attorney and former Olympian, Nikki Dryden of Team Darfur says, "A boycott is going to punish the wrong people. It is going to take away from the athletes who have trained their whole life for this moment. And we really just want to see a celebration of all those good things that happen during the Olympics. It's supposed to be a time of peace when countries come together and fight it out in the pool and on the track, and not on the battlefield."

Instead, Dryden says Team Darfur is encouraging athletes to speak out about human rights while attending the Beijing Games.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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