Saturday, April 12, 2008

A tainted torch

National Post Published: Saturday, April 12, 2008

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the United Nations of the sports world. Politically correct to the point of self-parody, it lectures developed countries on ethics, then ignores real human rights transgressions in developing nations. Full of Western delegates who are condescending internationalists and Third World delegates who are the cronies or failed siblings of dictators, the IOC exists mainly so that its members can jet about the world holding lavish meetings at posh hotels.

Given the environment in which he operates, then, it is somewhat surprising that IOC president Jacques Rogge would go as far as he did on Thursday, mildly and indirectly criticizing China on its human rights record. He reminded China that one of the conditions it had agreed to when it was awarded the games seven years ago was that it would improve its treatment of dissidents, open itself to foreign media scrutiny and grant its citizens greater freedom of speech. "We definitely ask China to respect this moral engagement."

Even though Dr. Rogge's statement was far from harsh-- and farther still from a threat to withdraw this summer's games from Beijing unless the Communist government ends its brutal repression of Tibet -- it was nonetheless remarkable for the head of an international debating society such as the IOC.

But his words were too little, too late.

The time for the IOC to put pressure on China was six years ago, when Beijing systematically stepped up its repression of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, imprisoning thousands of adherents as threats to the central government, torturing hundreds and even, allegedly, harvesting for sale the organs of executed Falun Gong members.

Or the IOC could have spoken up anytime in the past two years, when it became obvious that the Chinese government was backing Sudan's government-sponsored bloodbath in Darfur in return for Khartoum's promise to supply Beijing with dependable supplies of oil.

Or it could have spoken out sooner about China's crackdown in Tibet. Or about China's imprisonment of activists, journalists and bloggers. Or about its abysmal pollution record, which is so bad that many athletes are worried that their health will be compromised if they compete in August. Or about a hundred other matters of legitimate concern.

But the IOC held its tongue -- until now. At this late point, it is unlikely Dr. Rogge's words will have any impact. Moreover, Beijing knows that veiled, indirect rebukes are as far as Dr. Rogge will go: As previous IOC pronouncements show, the agency's singular obsession is ensuring the games go on as planned. Even if Beijing engaged in mass slaughter on the scale of Tiananmen Square, the IOC still would beg the world community to send its athletes to Beijing "in the Olympic spirit."

Therefore, it is up to world leaders, athletes and ordinary citizens to express their contempt for China's atrocious human rights abuses. This has been done already along the international route of the Olympic torch relay. So effective were spontaneous protests along the torch's course in London and Paris last weekend, that the pathway in San Francisco had to be dramatically altered and the flame kept largely out of sight. Protesters dubbed it the "Houdini torch" in response.

Now, everywhere the torch goes, it will have to be surrounded by Chinese military agents dressed to look like athletes just to keep it from being snuffed out -- an appropriately graphic symbol of how China's involvement in the Olympics has debased the Games' symbolic currency.

Many Western leaders are now musing about boycotting the Games' opening ceremonies, too. We applaud this: Since the opening and closing ceremonies are the most-watched events of any Olympics, refusing to participate in this meaningless pomp would rob the Games of much of their propaganda value for the Beijing government. (The IOC has already said that athletes who skip the opening will not be barred from competing in their events. So an opening-ceremonies boycott would not hurt innocent athletes the way a full boycott of the games would.)

European leaders are said to be close to endorsing a boycott of the opening, as is our own federal government. Individual athletes, too, should consider staying away from the parade of nations. A powerful message would be sent to China's rulers and the world if all that was left was the synchronized dance show and the lighting of the already tainted torch.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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