Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Keep the pressure on Beijing and China

By Kate Hoey
Last Updated: 11:58pm GMT 18/02/2008

Telegraph UK: For those of us who believe that sport should be a force for good in society, last week's stories of drug cheats, Olympic boycotts and greedy football clubs were depressing. Sport should be about participation, inclusion and a uniting of people in friendly competition. It should also be entertaining and enjoyable.

  • Countdown to the Beijing Olympics
  • In pics: 10 drug cheats
  • Despite the trillions of new money going to sport, we still wish to retain the romanticism and idealism associated with athletes like the clean-living amateur Eric Liddell, who refused to take part in the 100 metres at the 1924 Paris Olympics because it was run on a Sunday. He went on to win the gold medal at 400m.

    Keep the pressure on Beijing and China
    Sign of the times: police in Beijing

    It was precisely because sport was seen as a force for good that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2008 summer Olympics to Beijing in July 2001. Those of us who expressed concerns then about whether China was a fit country to host the world's largest sporting festival were told that the IOC had signed up to an agreement which promised journalists free access to report independently from anywhere in the country in the run-up to 2008. The British Olympic Association under its then chairman and member of the IOC, Craig Reedie, spoke of how the world of sport would help influence the regime in China and at the very least accelerate the process of bringing about long-term reforms.

    Looking back, there was a naivety about some of the statements justifying Beijing, with hard-bitten sports journalists waxing lyrical about how communication and understanding would be improved and that the Olympics would promote peace and tolerance.

    Those of us who have visited or stayed in an Olympic village marvel at its multi-national mix enabling athletes from all over the world to form friendships and exchange views. The Chinese will undoubtedly create a wonderful village for the athletes, but they promised a 'secure' Games, and outside the village, this 'security' will involve the continued arrest and removal of 'dissidents' from the area and an even greater clampdown on Chinese journalists. The torture and beatings and the executions may stop for the weeks of the Olympic and Paralympics competitions but that will be all.

    Just a few months away from the opening ceremony on Aug 8, it is crystal clear that whatever the fine words from the IOC, absolutely no improvement in human rights for ordinary Chinese has been achieved. Indeed, conditions have worsened for the Tibetan people and those who support the Falun Gong organisation. Just what have the IOC done since 2001 to ensure that their own Olympic charter has been even acknowledged by the Chinese Government? The charter says sport must be "at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity".

    The complacency of the leaders of the IOC is breathtaking, but then why should anyone have thought that they meant what they said about Beijing? After all, the whole paraphernalia of the Olympics is sadly now seen as a brand to be sold to the highest bidder, with priority given to the commercial interests of those who regard China as a crucial market.

    If the IOC are not going to defend their own charter, then athletes and sports lovers the world over must do it for them. I am not suggesting every athlete in the British team wears a Free Tibet badge (though that would be nice) but I do think that as adult and intelligent human beings, they must be allowed to express their concerns if they so wish.

    Obviously, competitors at that level will have much to concentrate on and, as Michael Johnson said last week, no athlete should be exploited for political reasons. However, that is different from the crass attempt by the British Olympic Association to gag our team from speaking out in any way. Thankfully, Colin Moynihan, the BOA's chairman, went ballistic when he heard and immediately vetoed it.

    Between now and August, I hope that every opportunity to confront and challenge the Chinese dictatorship will be taken. The IOC should be demanding that journalists are given free access to Tibet.

    This is the real test - without free reporting, China is being given a licence to hide its systematic human-rights abuses. I also fear that independent drug testing throughout China will not have been adhered to.

    Edward Macmillan-Scott MEP, Steven Spielberg and Prince Charles have put the Beijing Games in the spotlight. Now we need some more high-profile people to speak out and keep up the pressure.

    The Government will make polite noises of protest, but they are terrified of provoking a Chinese boycott of London 2012. So the Prime Minister will shamefully try to avoid meeting the Dalai Lama in London in May.

    If sport is to be a force for good, then the Olympics have to be used as an opportunity to highlight all that is wrong about China. Otherwise, let's stop pretending that there is such a thing as the Olympic ideal.

    OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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