Olympic irony

2008-04-24 00:00

After having been suspended for nearly 1 500 years, in 1896 the Olympic Games were revivied by the French educationist Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He saw them as a way to bring nations closer together and to have the youth of the world compete in sports rather than fight in war. The Olympic ideal came to be that of building a better world through mutual understanding in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.

Today the Games are as much about national competition and big business as building a better world. States hope to gain international kudos from the prowess of their athletes, while multinational firms pay huge sums in sponsorship money to be allowed to use the jealously guarded Olympic logo on their products.

The 2008 event, presaged by the symbolic carrying of the Olympic flame though various world capitals, is already in considerable trouble long before the Games have even begun. The lengthy Chinese occupation of Tibet, coupled with its recent brutal crackdown on protests in that country, has led to the torch being greeted with widespread protests instead of cheering crowds wherever it has gone. It received a hot reception in London and Paris; in San Francisco its route had to be changed at the last moment to forestall protests; in India its run was whittled down to a virtual sprint under a 15 000-strong police presence in New Delhi, while in Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, it appeared before an invitation-only crowd in a sports stadium with water canons and 5 500 officers stationed outside. More problems are expected in Australia, the torch’s next stop, while in Japan the build-up of opposition has already ensured that it will make its appearance in a parking lot instead of a majestic Buddhist temple.

Moreover, having spent astronomical sums — it has cost each of the “global partners” between R450 million and R650 million — the companies sponsoring the games are likely to find themselves the targets of a new, more vigorous war on China’s dismal human rights record by campaigners, encouraged by the success of their protests along the Olympic torch’s relay route. The worried sponsors, in turn, are likely to pressure both the International Olympic Committee and Beijing itself for change — or risk damaging their brands.

The irony is that while China hoped to use the Games to enhance its status in the modern world, the contrast between the lofty Olympic ideals and China’s disregard for human rights, together with its occupation of Tibet, is, in fact, doing far more for the Tibetan cause than could ever have been foreseen.

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