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Chinese Egg Roll: The Torch Debacle

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The Beijing Olympics are getting plenty of press, it’s just not the kind they want or had expected. The symbolic torch running has become a political hot potato and rallied Free Tibet supporters worldwide.

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s right; the radical left side of the world. I love the fact that this area is known for its radical thinking. It’s one of the most appealing aspects of living here. Berkeley, or as we know it, Berzerkely, is one of my favorite place, anywhere.

It comes as no great surprise that the Olympic torch is running afoul of protesters in London and Paris, but the protests abroad have been clumsy and threatening. The protests we’ve all seen have been most uninteresting and uncreative. In those elite cities, the protesters set out to block the torch runner or to extinguish the torch, and they achieved a modest level of success.

But here in San Francisco, things are done with a sense of adventure, creativity, and with aplomb. On Tuesday, as the world watched and cringed at the protestations world wide, a well-prepared team of protesters in S.F. calmly, carefully, without disruption or violence, scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and hung Free Tibet banners on the world’s most famous bridge. Call me crazy but there is something very unique and admirable in the way they handled their protest.

I love the Olympics—summer, winter, whenever. I believe in the purity of sports and the ideal of the Olympics, to cast a spotlight on the world’s best athletes and to honor athletic competition. Athletes work their entire lives to reach an Olympics and they deserve to compete without the nasty specter of politics getting in the way.

Ah, but that is unfortunately wishful thinking.

Too often the Olympics are used as a platform for dissent and for political rhetoric. In fact an Olympics without controversy would be as unlikely as an ice hockey pair from Haiti. Sadly, the ideals at the heart of the Olympics have been diminished by politics.

It is after all an opportunity for “prime time” coverage of groups concerns and issues, real or imagined.

I am torn by the entire Olympic torch debacle and the greater debate about the Beijing Olympics and the Chinese government. I want Olympic athletes to have an opportunity to do “their thing.” They have worked hard to represent their country and have sacrificed much to get to an Olympic game. Those selected to carry the torch have been given a unique and wonderful honor, one that should be respected. I don’t agree with the tactic of chasing down torch runners and trying to stop them or to extinguish the flame.

But one has to admit that the Free Tibet issue resonates with many Americans. Freedom is America’s foundation; we offer freedom to all, “send me your tired and your poor.” 

  • But should the Olympics, wherever they are held come under such fire?
  • Should families be afraid to visit China and attend an Olympic event?
  • Should the world be held hostage every time an Olympics takes place?

The world changes, it evolves, the Olympics do not. We seem to forget that politics have often stood in the way of idealism and competition throughout the history of the Olympic Games.

A History Lesson on Olympics Protests and Violence
When Barcelona held its successful Games in 1992, it was the first time since the Rome Games in 1960 that there were no boycotts. Those were the heady days when the Cold War had just ended and another source of boycotts, apartheid, had also disappeared. South Africa was welcomed back that year.

Beijing’s opportunity to show China’s advancement into the modern world has also given demonstrators their chance to return to what is really an old Olympic tradition of protesting. It goes back to 1908, when Irish athletes, angered at the refusal of Britain to give Ireland its independence, boycotted the Games in London.

On a smaller scale, the US team refused to dip its flag to King Edward VII in the opening ceremony. “This flag dips to no earthly king,” was the captain’s comment. The US tradition of dipping its flag to nobody has continued since and will provide its own little side story when London is the host in 2012.

In 1932, there was a preview of the problems that would come four years later when, in Los Angeles, an Italian winner gave a fascist salute on the podium.

The Berlin games in 1936 (awarded to Germany before Hitler came to power) “would have to take the first prize for the most controversial,” according to the Olympic Historians’ Society Vice President David Wallechinsky. The Nazis drenched the games in propaganda. There were calls for boycotts—and actual boycotts by some Jewish athletes. But the United States did attend after Avery Brundage, President of the American Olympic Committee, overcame calls for a US boycott. The irony is that the Games are now also remembered for the performance of the black US athlete Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals under Hitler’s nose. Incidentally, the Olympic torch relay idea was started by the Nazi organisers of the 36 Games as part of their self-glorification effort. It remains to be seen if, after this year’s protests, the relay survives.

After World War II, the Games resumed, but the Cold War began. There was a flavour of that in Helsinki in 1952, when the Soviet athletes stayed on their side of the border and came across only to compete.

In 1956, in Melbourne, the troubles in the Middle East made themselves felt when Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon stayed away because of the Suez invasion by Britain and France. The Cold War had an impact when the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland refused to go because of the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian revolution.

Tokyo in 1964 saw boycotts from Indonesia and North Korea over an argument about their athletes competing in some rival games and South Africa was banned because of its racial policies.

Mexico’s 1968 Games were marked by two very different protests. In the first, students demonstrated against the government about ten days before the Games and were fired on by the Mexican army. More than 200 students were killed.

Then, during the games, two black US runners, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, raised their hands in a black power salute from the podium. They were expelled on the grounds that political gestures are banned from Olympic ceremonies, but they had a huge impact.

The most disastrous games of all, in which protest moved into violence, was in Munich in 1972. Gunmen from the Palestinian Black September group got into the Israeli compound, by climbing over an unguarded fence, and by the end eleven Israeli athletes had been murdered. The Games paused for a memorial event—and then went on.

Political influence continued in Montreal in 1976, when twenty-six African and Caribbean countries held a boycott because New Zealand, which had played rugby in South Africa, was allowed to compete.
Montreal started another trend in controversy—the cost of the Games. It plagued Athens and is plaguing London.

The biggest boycott of them all came in 1980 when sixty-two countries led by the United States stayed away from Moscow following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan the previous year.  Retaliation followed in Los Angeles in 1984. The Soviet Union led an Eastern bloc boycott. The Games were at a low ebb. Politics had nearly taken over.

The Seoul Games in 1988 saw something of a recovery, and even North Korea’s refusal to attend, annoyed that it was not the co-host, impressed only Ethiopia and Cuba, who stayed out in sympathy.
Recovery was celebrated in a big way in Barcelona four years later and although the Atlanta Games in 1996 were marred by a bomb explosion, they were also largely free of protests.

Sydney in 2000 was judged one of the best Games ever. Athens, while hit by a large bill, went off smoothly as well.

But Beijing has shown that protests are always ready to erupt.

Tonight as I finish this piece I am watching the news report the Torch Run in San Francisco. No violence, no torch extinguished, no torch runners accosted. But San Francisco had to play a game of hide and seek with the Torch and many Olympic supporters and plain ordinary folks who wanted to experience a moment in history were deprived of that opportunity.

What is the solution? More security? Eliminate the torch run? Is the entire ideal of the Olympics in jeopardy? There will always be a cause, a reason, valid or not, to disrupt events with world wide audiences.

I hope we all accept the state of our world today and make decisions based on the reality.
Protesters need to take a page out of the SF bridge climbers’ book of protests and demonstrations. Be civil, respectful and most of all, be wildly, peacefully, creative.

Free Tibet, yes, absolutely. But I doubt that disrupting the Torch run will stop the genocide in Tibet or change Chinese policy. Not much of a trade off is it?

 By Ivette Ricco


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