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Flame of discontent

Olympics continue to be used as a platform to gain political hardsell, writes Pradeep Magazine.
Hindustan Times | By Big Picture | Pradeep Magazine
UPDATED ON APR 13, 2008 01:13 AM IST

In responding to the call of his conscience, Bhaichung Bhutia said “No” to carrying the Olympic Torch, triggering off a debate among Indians on boycott of the Beijing Games. On the face of it, why should civilized nations play ball in a country that brutally cracks down on innocent monks to suppress their desire for freedom and cultural identity.

Boycott has been used before as a weapon to register anger and protest. In 1980, USA was joined in the boycott of the Moscow Olympics by Japan, West Germany, China and Canada, the reason being Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Russia’s response came four years later, when the entire eastern bloc boycotted the Los Angles Games, much to the discomfiture of the United States.

This tit-for-tat probably ended this form of protest as most nations realised playing this game of boycott cut both ways.

More than two decades later, we are now once again being confronted by a similar threat, although as of now the protests are being restricted only to the Torch Run, there are faint voices which would want to go the whole hog and let China know they can’t let loose a reign of terror on non-violent protesters.

What Bhutia, one of India’s best known sportsmen, did was a simple act of sacrificing his hour of glory and letting the Indians know what he thinks of the authoritarian Chinese regime.

A complex issue

That the whole issue from a State’s point of view is not so simple becomes clear from India’s stand on it. Suresh Kalmadi’s response was quick and unambiguous, something politicians are not generally known for.

Kalmadi may not represent the Indian state, but as head of the Indian Olympic Association, his voice has an official ring to it and what he said in many ways underlines the complexity of the whole situation, and the reason why State boycotts of the Games can prove self-defeating in the end.

“We are hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and what if some nations would want to boycott the Games, citing our human rights violation record in Kashmir?” Kalmadi had said earlier.

I know there are many in India who would want to scoff at this statement and say that crackdown in Lhasa and the Tibetan problems cannot be compared to Kashmir, that India has not been brutal and repressive in suppressing the movement for “independence” of the Kashmiri Muslims, and that their cultural identity is not being eroded.

But, if around one-lakh civilians have been killed in this almost two-decade of confrontation, and if thousands of people come out on the streets to protest “State” repression, the Kashmir issue, for many, is no different from the Tibet one.

India’s dubious record

India’s own record even outside of Kashmir has not been exemplary. The state pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, the gross human rights violations in the North-East and against tribals are too well documented. So if some nations do decide to boycott the New Delhi Games, we can’t cry foul.

Why do you think USA or United Kingdom can’t even think of a boycott? After having invaded Iraq and having the blood of around four lakh civilians on their hands, what moral right or authority do they have to call for a boycott? The 2012 London Olympics could face a similar problem and with the US bidding for the 2016 Games, the Iraq war could well haunt it when the bidding is decided.

That there are no saints in this game and most of us are sinners is reflected from the Amnesty International report which lists only five countries that have almost zero human rights violation records: Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Costa Rica.

It may not be a bad idea to rotate the Olympics in these four countries to save the nation states from the collective guilt of being repressive on others for their selfish gains.

Sponsors’ ball

Then there is this huge commercial angle that no one is talking about. The IOC has a point when it brands all those world leaders hypocrites who were “happy to do business with Beijing but want the Games to be boycotted”.

Hein Verbruggen, one of the IOC members, may have spoken for many when he said, “I have little admiration for politicians who come to China and sign big economic contracts and three or four months later say we may not come to the opening ceremony.”

The IOC has also referred to Australia’s Aboriginal human rights record as an issue that they deliberately avoided as Sydney prepared to host the 2000 Olympics. The real money angle is also linked with the sponsors as the Games itself have a multi-million dollar commercial angle to it.

Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Panasonic, Samsung and Swatch are paying millions to be linked with the Games and they would be the ones who do business in China and can, if they want, put pressure on China to show restraint in Tibet, as they stand to lose a lot if the Games are boycotted.

In India, when film star Aamir Khan says his heart bleeds for Tibet but he would run with the Olympic Torch as he believes that the Games don’t belong to China, he may have a point, but as a brand ambassador for Coca Cola, does he have a choice to say no?

A sporting perspective

From a sportsman’s point of view, this issue has another dimension. Take the example of Henry Marsh, a Utah resident and four-time Olympic distance runner.

He won the 1979 competition in Moscow called Spartikiade and remembers standing atop the podium and listening to the US national anthem while the American flag was raised in the Lenin Stadium at the height of the Cold War. “It was one of the highlights of my career,” says Marsh. “I had goose bumps. That symbolizes more than anything why we need to keep politics out of it.”

But because of the US boycott of Moscow Games, Marsh could not compete and said, “It was stupid. The only people hurt by the boycott were the athletes.”

The Soviets did leave Afghanistan eight years later but not because of the boycott but because they could not defeat the Afghan insurgents. Just to refresh memories, the US provided financial support to those insurgents, some of whom are now among the “terrorists” the US is fighting.

Without making this issue more intricate and it getting lost in a web of complexities, suffice to say that when an athlete decides to forgo his ambitions and decides to protest, his courage and guts should be admired.

Men of honour

Who can forget the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute. It was one of the most stirring human rights protests in the history of the Games. African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who came first and third in the 200 meters race, took off their shoes to receive their medals — they wore black socks that, for them, represented Black poverty.

Smith, who had broken the world record, wore a black scarf around his neck to represent Black pride, and Carlos wore beads which he described were for those “individuals who were lynched or killed and for whom no one said a prayer.”

With Smith wearing the right glove and Carlos the left, when the “Star-Spangled Banner” played, both delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front-page news around the world. Smith later said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Protests like these, howsoever rare, have the power to move as they come not from the “tainted” but from those who have suffered or feel the suffering of the marginalized.

The rest, well, is nothing but hypocrisy if not downright sham.

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