Tarnished Gold of the Olympics

The 2008 Summer Olympic Games open today in Beijing, the capital of the People’s Republic of China. It is an awesome spectacle, drawing in the finest athletes from around the world competing in an array of events that call on each participant to give every bit of mental, physical and emotional strength in the pursuit of excellence. Their efforts will be closely scrutinized by the press of their own countries and the major international news organizations, with each one trying to offer a different angle – an intoxicating spin – into what makes these athletes compete and sometimes, in the pursuit of a story, to explain failure. It is human competition at its finest.

It is too bad it is being held in one of the worst places in the world, in the capital of a nation that exalts a single party’s beliefs over the rights of the individual, a nation that routinely oppresses and distorts news, suppresses dissent and protest, ignores the welfare of workers, mutilates the environment and treats justice like a disposable container.  The People’s Republic of China is a nation that is held together by a combination of a proud, ancient, honored, civilizing culture and a pack of relentless ideologues with guns.

No matter how hard anyone tries, it is impossible to separate the Olympics from politics. It would be nice to be able to keep the athletic competition in an impenetrable bubble, safe from the sounds and the furies of the real world, but that does not happen. Human nature and history will not allow it. Despite the athletic achievements at every Olympiad, the Nazi games of 1936, the protest games of 1968, the massacre games of 1972 and the boycott games of 1980 and 1984 are seared into the collective memory of those who follow the Olympics, not as much for what was achieved on the field but for what was stolen from the games – the Olympic spirit.

The 2008 Beijing Games have the ghastly potential to be remembered in the same awful vein. At the time the International Olympic Committee awarded the games to the People’s Republic of China, there was a great deal of commentary stating that the games would spur the PRC to practice greater respect for human rights, give the nation a needed boost of self-confidence to ease its entrance on to the world stage, enhance the free flow of information in and out of the country and, in general, make the country a freer and more humane place for its citizens.

Nothing of the kind has happened.

The People’s Republic of China has continued to harass and brutalize its critics, impose censorship wherever it can get away with it (or at least at an acceptable cost) and severely restrict the activities of foreign visitors to the games. There has been no increase in freedom; there has only been a steely, steady, relentless effort to hide the horrors and highlight the inevitable, embraceable snapshots of Olympic greatness.

When the Olympic torch is lit in Beijing, it will illuminate only dashed hopes and false goodwill. The rest will remain in darkness.