Sunday, March 23, 2008

NZ Olympic athletes should be ashamed

By RICHARD BOOCK - Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 23 March 2008

Death in the street has a way of concentrating the mind.

It reminds us that sport and politics are not mutually exclusive. Never have been. That a line should always be drawn between the right and the extremely wrong. That apathy is our worst enemy. To re-work an old Tolstoy quote, "you may not be interested in politics, but politics is very interested in you".

How quickly we turn the other cheek; how desperately we embrace denial. Have we learnt anything from the futility of appeasement? Apparently not. The pain of Tibet is played out on our TV screens nightly but still we prepare to attend the butcher's party. What's the big deal about a bunch of dead monks, anyway?

Our Olympic athletes are being used as political puppets, whether they fancy the idea or not. Barbara Kendall says they are not going to Beijing "to be politically-minded". But how can they not be? Their mere presence helps legitimise human rights abuses throughout Tibet and China. Is she saying she doesn't care?

It's bad enough that a corrupt police regime is hiding behind the skirts of the Olympic movement, using world sport's relatively clean image to present a face of charming civility. But it beggars belief that some of our athletes are prepared to argue against the right to express themselves freely. Good grief. That they actually have that right is the entire point.

Any Kiwi athlete who speaks out against current events deserves a medal. Any who might decide to make a symbolic stand should be feted as a hero. You never know, they might even spark a movement. But the idea of going to Beijing with a closed mind, in the blind belief that sport and politics somehow don't mix, is a victory only for ignorance.

And just on that why do you think it is that some of us are so reluctant to scrape the surface of China's human rights record? Is it because the reality is so indefensible that it's easier to just stick our heads in the sand? Better to sit back and watch television? Have we really become that cowardly; that detached?

The Final Whistle would like to think not. But, by the same token, it would be greatly encouraging if someone in the New Zealand team was to show the presence of mind to use their position to maximum advantage while they still can; that is, before they arrive in Beijing.

Mark Todd has reserved the right to make a silent protest and that's a good start. But what about a vocal one? What about a statement of concern?

People will ask what possible difference it could make. You can ask the same of our ecological ideals. What's the point of reducing our exhaust emissions when India's energy demands are about to quadruple? Why cut down on coal-fired power stations when China opens a new one every week? But you've got to start somewhere.

In any case, the idea of protest isn't exactly ground-breaking. Several All Blacks refused to tour South Africa in the years before reunification. Not because they thought their absence would make a blind bit of difference to the apartheid regime, but because they found it unconscionable to be seen supporting it. In New Zealand sporting circles, there has possibly been no bigger sacrifice.

Neither is sport unused to political controversy. It's not as if it loses all value whenever anyone makes a stand. On the contrary. All Blacks flanker Josh Kronfeld once painted a ban-the-bomb sign on his headgear and wore it in a test against France. And Zimbabwe cricketers Andy Flower and Henry Olonga wore black armbands in their opening world cup match in 2003, mourning the death of democracy.

American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave clenched-fist salutes at the 1968 Mexico Games to raise awareness about black civil rights. Australian Cathy Freeman ran a victory lap with the Aborigine flag to promote indigenous issues at Sydney 2000. A large dollop of anti-authoritarianism can be healthy, unless you happen to live in Tibet or China.

It's now clear that Chinese premier Wen Jiabao needs the Olympics far more than the Olympics need him. For his administration, the games are an invitation to deceive. Smoke and mirrors to cover up its bloody fingerprints. Credibility, unable to be earned, is to be bought from compliant lemmings like ourselves. It should never be for sale. The price is too high.

Naivety is no excuse. Unlike some, we can research the subject matter. We can study the history of oppression waged against Tibetans. We can read the reports of tanks (36 according to one Dutch tourist) on the ground in Lhasa, and watch the You Tube footage. We can even amuse ourselves by monitoring China's heavily-skewered state media coverage.

Thank goodness for the Netherlands and Germany, who have at least signalled an intention to discuss a VIPs' boycott of Beijing's opening ceremony, following a suggestion from the press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders. Extreme? New Zealand officials would do well to consider joining in.

The world is no longer only watching China. Inaction equals complicity. Banal nonsense about the need to separate sport and politics won't wash. South Africa has already uncovered a hero in 50m butterfly world champion Roland Schoeman, who's lobbied the International Olympic Committee to condemn China's activities. We shouldn't hold our breath. But at least he has tried.

New Zealanders used to be a bit like that. We gave things a go, and when things weren't right we weren't afraid to say so. Think the suffragettes, the watersiders, the Vietnam war protesters. Think French nuclear bomb testing in the South Pacific, nuclear-free ports, anti-apartheid tours and treaty rights. We could get quite stroppy at times.

Hopefully we haven't become too comfortable or complacent. To use the words of another long-dead philosopher, the price of apathy towards public affairs "is to be ruled by evil men". But then again, what did Plato know?

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

No comments: