Sunday, April 27, 2008

Human Rights and the Olympics

A student I work with told me the other day that he was giving a speech on human rights and the Olympics for a class, focusing on China’s maltreatment of Tibet. That jarred something in my memory, and I asked him what he thought about poor and homeless and politically suspect people being cleared from the streets of cities where the Olympics have taken place in the past. Or about big areas being razed so that new stadiums and playing fields and Olympic Villages can be built. In the end I went to the library to find Dave Zirin’s Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket Books, 2007), which I read last summer, for its meaty chapter on the politics of the Olympic Games.

Sports, you may remember, are not a great interest of mine. But ever since Noam Chomsky freaked out some of his fans in the 1980s by speaking critically about the distractive function of commercial sports, I’ve been paying a little more attention. (Those remarks won Chomsky a shocked mention in the Village Voice’s sports page – it’s one thing to criticize American imperialism and Big Business making obscene profits in other realms, but Sport is holy even to many progressives.) Montreal is still paying for the 1976 games it hosted, over thirty years later, and Greece went into deep deficit to pay for the 2004 Athens games.

Then there’s

the web of temporary martial law that accompanies every Olympics. Already in Britain, and in Beijing as they prepare for the 2008 Games, we are seeing a familiar script replayed every two years, with only the language changing. Political leaders start by saying that a city must be made “presentable for an international audience.” Then the police and security forces get the green light to round up “undesirables” with extreme prejudice [133].

As examples Zirin cites “the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous ‘Olympic Gang Sweeps’” in Los Angeles in 1984, using a 1916 law enacted to suppress the Wobblies; the Atlanta Games of 1996, where “officials razed African-American-occupied public housing to make way for Olympic facilities”; Athens in 2004, where psychiatric hospitals were stuffed with the homeless, and “Greece actually overrode its own constitution by ‘allowing’ thousands of armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary troops from the United States, Britain, and Israel into their country” (134). He then devotes several pages to the repression in Mexico in 1968, when hundreds of students and workers were gunned down by security police shortly before the games. “In China,” he adds, “where human rights and trade union organizing are a daily battle in normal times, the government will at the very least use the Olympics to crush even mild dissent” (138).

And I’m sure I don’t need to mention the 1936 games in Hitler’s Germany? Avery Brundage, then

the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee … personally set out to quash a rising din of protest. He met with Hitler in Berlin, where they shared smiles and handshakes for the camera. Brundage returned to the States with tales of a new Germany that treated Jews and other national minorities with exceptional care. He dismissed the anti-Hitler rumblings as the work of a communist conspiracy. … As late as 1941, he was praising the Reich at a Madison Square Garden America First rally [127].

His fondness for Hitler didn’t keep Brundage from becoming the President of the IOC, a post he held until 1972. It’s worth reading Zirin’s entire chapter on the Olympics, and indeed the whole book.

It’s an odd paradox. The Olympics bring repression with them, but they’re a useful platform for drawing attention to repression. Governments woo the Olympics in order to distract world attention from their misconduct with Riefenstahlian spectacle, yet that very visibility makes them vulnerable to exposure. Will anyone be very surprised that George Bush and Kim Jong-Il are on the same side in this controversy? There was violence as the torch passed through Seoul, but no disturbances are likely to mar its passage through Pyongyang. Despite Avery Brundage’s declaration that “The cardinal rule of the Olympics is no politics,” the Olympics are political through and through. I’m glad that people are using the Olympics to make noise about China’s abuses, though these abuses aren’t confined to Tibet. Given the history of the Olympics, though, I wonder whether resistance to the games themselves isn’t a better idea.