Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Political protests of Olympic proportions

Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle

(02-27) 18:34 PST -- I believe that the Olympic Games in Beijing will be hugely successful and absolutely trouble-free.

The reason I say that is because China is working like crazy to iron out a few rough spots, because I'm an optimistic person and because I don't want to be identified by Chinese officials as a bad guy and have my media village pillow-mint privileges suspended this August.

Besides, why heap more trouble on China's plate, when America is already starting to annoy our Summer Games hosts.

The U.S. Olympic Committee recently announced that it will ship 12 tons of American beef to Beijing to feed our athletes. There has been talk of potential problems with steroids and pesticides in Chinese cattle and poultry.

If you don't think what the committee is doing is an insult to the host, try it next time you're invited to a dinner party. "I brought my own cow, hope you don't mind!"

Also, security is always a major concern for the Olympics host country, and guess which nation will drag the most political baggage to China this summer? For some reason, America's popularity around the globe (and in some distant galaxies) is currently low-ish.

And while China is respectfully requesting that the rest of the world call off its political-protest dogs and let the Olympics be about running and jumping, Steven Spielberg has resigned as artistic adviser to the Games, to protest China's support of a killer regime in Darfur, Sudan.

I guess this means that the mystery flame-lighter at the Opening Ceremonies won't be E.T.

We Americans tend to rub people the wrong way, and part of the problem is our pesky free press. As China prepares to throw a party it hopes will show the world how cool it is, the free press - here and in other annoyingly-democratic countries - is getting nasty.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Chinese officials are manipulating air-quality data in order to whitewash a huge Beijing smog problem.

See? We of the free media make the overall situation seem dicey, although when you come right down to it, there are only six areas of major concern regarding the Beijing Games: Air, water, food, weather, security and human rights.

The first five, the Chinese are working on. The last one is stickier.

A Chinese spokesperson announced that using the Olympics as a forum for politicizing and protesting "is inconsistent with the Olympics spirit and will bear no fruit."

There. That should put a stop to any such plans. No fruit here, kids!

However, the Olympics can be messy.

One of the most famous political incidents in Olympic history was the Tommie Smith/John Carlos demonstration in Mexico City, 1968. Less well-remembered, though worth mentioning now, is what took place in that city 10 days before the opening ceremonies.

Thousands of Mexicans, angry over the government spending tons of money and burnishing its image by hosting the Olympics, gathered to protest for democratic reform and social justice.

Police and army troops surrounded the protesters in a square, rolled in tanks, opened fire and slaughtered (estimates vary) about 300 men, women and children, hauling away the carcasses in garbage trucks.

Asking political protesters to go away and leave the Olympics alone is like saying to ants, "Dudes, can't you see we're trying to have a picnic here?"

With China hosting this summer, there is no shortage of stuff to protest. Like: There are reports that thousands of people in the Beijing area have been forced out of their homes to make the city prettier, and that many protesters have been arrested. Chinese officials deny the claims.

Then there are the situations in Darfur and Tibet, where some say the Chinese government is playing the heavy.

A Chinese online critic of the Games has been imprisoned, and many government-critical Web sites have been shut down. A human-rights and AIDS activist named Hu Jia got himself tossed into prison, and there is a growing call for a boycott if Hu isn't freed.

With so much going on, Olympics officials in many nations are worried that their athletes will go all Tommie Smith this August. British officials asked their athletes to sign a nonprotest pledge, then backed off in the face of heavy criticism from free-speech fans.

U.S. Olympic officials will delicately suggest to American Olympians that any protesting or politicizing would be counter to the Olympic spirit. Good luck to those officials if an athlete should ask, "Isn't human-rights abuse counter to the Olympic spirit?"

Putting it all in perspective, then, I'm not that worried about the smog.

E-mail Scott Ostler at sostler@sfchronicle.com.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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