Blood over Beijing

2008-06-20 14:04

London - The Beijing Olympics will not be the world's least controversial. China is under fire by human rights activists, the Olympic Torch relay has become a focal point for protests, while athletes from some nations have signed gag orders to stop them commenting on anything but sport. So much for sport and politics says Jacqui Lund.

As we move closer to August 2008, we pose a question... should politics and sport sleep in the same bed? Is it right to ask a group of athletes to give up their dream of Olympic glory because the venue for the Olympics has a reported history of shady dealings around the world?

If you've just come back from six months in the Amazon jungle with no TV, or if too many nights of snakebites at the Walkabout have clouded your everyday media savvy, here's a run down of the trouble with China.

Make your own decision on China versus the World when it comes to hosting the Olympics.

The problems inside

People and pollution ? two commodities China has in abundance. Both are badly managed, both are currently in the international eye. "This will be the People's Olympics," China promised when they were awarded the Olympic Games. "We will make the preparations for the Olympic Games a process of substantially improving the people's living standards, both materially and culturally," they claimed.

China budgeted around $37bn on the Olympics in Beijing. Their state-of-the-art Olympic facilities, the 'Bird?s Nest' National Stadium and the 'Water Cube' Aquatics Centre are structural wonders to behold.

Lurking in the shadows are China's 40 million people living below the poverty line with no national healthcare system. No-one has been able to say how the Water Cube will feed and medicate the millions.

China has installed new airports, railway systems and roads for the Games, essential for hosting an event of this magnitude. But in a city as densely populated as Beijing how does a government create space? Simply bulldoze houses, randomly and without permission from the poor guys living inside.

According to the China Rights Forum, the number of people displaced by Olympics-related development in Beijing is over 1.4 million.

China has grown to be an economic powerhouse of the world in a few decades. They make use of an endless supply of desperate and exploitable labour. Sweat shops where young Chinese children stitch together running shoes till all hours of the night are no rumour.

A Playfair report in 2008 showed one company had workers operating more than 13 hours a day, seven days a week, for half the legal minimum wage. No independent trade unions may exist and there is no right to legally protest. China promised unrestricted press freedom in their Beijing Olympic Action Plan. However, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 'China continues to be the world's leading jailer of journalists, a dishonour it has held for nine consecutive years'.

A grey horizon

China promised a Green Olympics. But their phenomenal rise as a major industrial power has consequences. A 2007 World Bank report revealed that pollution-related diseases kill 750 000 people in China every year. Five-hundred million people in China lack access to safe drinking water, according to the Chinese Ministry of Health. Parts of China's lengthy coastline can no longer sustain life. Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides spewed by China's coal-fired power plants fall as acid rain on Seoul and Tokyo.

There is concern that Beijing's filthy air may have an effect on the athletes at the Olympics. CNN reported that the International Olympic Committee voiced concern over distance events at the Olympics in August, stating that the marathons could be called off if the conditions posed a danger to athletes' health.

Already Ethiopian running legend Haile Gebrselassie, an asthma sufferer, has stated that he may pull out of the Olympics due to pollution.

China would ideally like to show sceptics the middle finger during the Olympics. So environmental scientists in Beijing have been tracking the number of 'Blue Sky' days when pollution is below 101, on a scale of 0-500. Landmark laws to develop renewable energy sources have been written.

Illegal coal mines are being closed down and restrictions placed on the worst polluting factories. A few weeks before the Olympics, Beijing plans to shut down 'dirty' industries in the city, limit the amount of cars on the road and slow production at the surrounding coal mines.

While this could have dramatic effects on the world pollution status (the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that nearly 25 percent of pollution in the skies above Los Angeles could be traced to China), it's unlikely to be enough to call it a Green Olympics. But it may just ensure that Olympic marathon runners aren't dropping like flies in a Doom-filled room.

The African Issue

There's always an African issue. Recently Hollywood's high-flying media hussies got their word out on the paparazzi street about one such issue. Names like Angelina Jolie, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg tend to make a situation significant.

The Darfur region of Sudan has been the stage for conflict between African farmers and Arab herders for years. In 2003, farmers attacked government targets, protesting against the government's alleged support of the Arab herders. The Sudanese government, with Janjaweed militia, responded brutally and without mercy. The death toll is estimated at around 300 000. Human Rights Watch has added that five years into the Darfur conflict (yes, it's still going on), women and girls are still being violently raped and attacked by armed groups throughout Darfur. Thousands of innocent people are refugees, fleeing from their homes in fear.

So what's this got to do with China? China reportedly buys about two-thirds of Sudan's oil, 500 000 barrels a day. China is also believed to be Sudan's biggest arms supplier, effectively aiding the Sudanese government in its war against the people of Sudan. The pressure is on China to suspend its interests in Sudan. In response, the government has sent an envoy and 135 peacekeeping forces into Sudan.

This action has not satisfied protestors.

Numerous high profile people such as Barack Obama have gone out of their way to criticise the Chinese government. China's response: 'As the Darfur issue is neither an internal issue of China, nor is it caused by China, it is completely unreasonable, irresponsible and unfair for certain organisations and individuals to link the two as one'.

Stephanie Sandler, a South African rhythmic gymnast, is a member of Team Darfur, an international alliance of athletes committed to bringing an end to the crisis in Darfur. "I was in shock when I realised that there was such a connection between China and what's happening in Darfur," she says. "How can you supply weapons just to make money and miss the point so totally?"

Many years in Tibet

For centuries, China has tried to control Tibet. Finally in 1950, Mao Zedong's army invaded and Chinese rule was 'thrust upon Tibetan Government and people by the threat of arms' according to the Dalai Lama.

They brought in Communism and the Chinese army went about destroying as many monasteries and temples as they could get their mitts on.

Resistance from Tibetans intensified until, in 1959, a mass protest turned ugly. 80 000 Tibetans were killed and the Dalai Lama fled to India. According to the Tibetan Government in exile, over 1.2 million Tibetans died between 1949 and 1979 through massacres, labour camps and famine.

China has tried to make amends by pouring money into Tibet's economy.

According to China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu, 'each year China has invested billions of Yuan in the development of Tibet'. She added that 'freedom of religious belief is respected by the government and protected under the law'. But in the past months peaceful protests by monks in the capital Lhasa against oppressive Chinese rule exploded into riots. People demonstrated around the world about the alleged human rights and religious abuse of Tibetans. These are the people you?ve seen waving flags and attacking the Olympic Torch.

Is this what the Olympics is all about? Aren't the Games about the glorification of all things sporting?

"The principle of politics and sport not mixing is wonderfully idealistic but hopelessly out of touch frankly," says Martin Gillingham, member of the British Olympic Team in 1984, former editorial director of SA Sports Illustrated and now a journalist residing in the United Kingdom. His point: "if you're the Olympic movement and you take your Olympics to somewhere like Beijing, you're inviting problems."

Should an athlete be a spokesperson for the world just because he is faster than Superman on speed? Maybe someone in the public eye does have an obligation to use their position to take a stand.

As Gillingham suggests, a 22-year-old athlete may well be the wrong person to ask about world politics. They live a particularly sheltered life. They've chosen it to be that way. "All they're interested in is getting their hands on an Olympic tracksuit and going to compete," says Gillingham.

Alternatively, you could argue that athletes who do get on their soapbox are abusing their position because why should their political viewpoint be any more valid than yours or mine?

Sandler says, "In the end, sport should be about doing what you love and that's it". But, as Sandler points out, there is politics in everything.

Everyone always has their own agenda. What is more relevant, according to Gillingham, is alleged evidence that the Chinese government has indulged in a state-administered performance-enhancing drug programme.

"You can bet your bottom dollar that the Chinese will do well at these Olympics," says Gillingham. "They haven't got any real record in recent times of doing well in the majority of sports. If they do well, the inevitable conclusion would be that they've been taking drugs." This stands to destroy a sport already on its knees because of its association with drugs.

The Olympic Charter describes Olympism as 'a philosophy of life, blending sport with culture and education. Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles'. South Africans well understand the impact of political and sporting boycotts on a country.

Decide for yourself then, are the problems in China significant to the Olympic Games?


AB praises selfless skipper

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