- Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the modern Olympic Games
Seven years ago, I was nursing a sunburn in a tent on a sidewalk outside the offices of the Vice President of the United States Olympic Committee in a rough neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles. I was one of a handful of activists there to protest the 2008 Summer Olympics being handed to Beijing.
When the verdict came down in favor of China, it felt like a low point in the struggle for human rights. Little did we know back then that these Olympics would become a lightening rod for social causes across the planet--from human rights to animal rights, to labor rights and the environment. The Beijing Olympics has engaged and inspired activists like never before, and made activists out of those who were only sideline sympathizers. It is simply the best thing to have happened to the Tibetan cause in 50 years. And I find myself asking, 'What were we thinking?' But as long time Tibet activist, Tseten Phanucharas says, "It was important to protest then, and it's important to grasp the opportunity now."
The opportunity now is loaded with potential. The Olympics is good for Tibet, and Darfur, and puppies and kittens, but not for the reasons that the IOC thinks. IOC president Jacques Rogge buoyantly proclaimed his conviction that the Olympic Games "will improve human rights in China". But it seems the opposite is true. Amnesty International is reporting that China's human rights record has actually deteriorated since being awarded the Games as it engages in a pre-Olympic Spring-cleaning of potential troublemakers.
The IOC said that the Olympics would open China up. It's opened China up all right--not to a relaxation of their repressive policies, but to the scrutiny and attention of the free world. And this is what is creating pressure for change in China. It's thanks to the journalists on the front line of our much-maligned media, and the bureau chiefs at CNN, BBC, Reuters and AP, who are bringing the stories to our attention that then creates public pressure on politicians to act.
And, now, like a scenario dreamed up by Human Rights Inc., the torch is being carried across the continents of the globe, looking less like a glowing beacon of the human spirit than a symbol of violence and repression. The torch's journey is igniting protests, discussion and debate, and shedding even more light on the issues that China would rather ignore (including the grievances of middle-American blue collar workers who are waking up to find their jobs have relocated to Jiangsu).
And carrying the torch is feeling, well.... icky. The captain of India's national soccer team has refused to carry it, as has a disabled British comedienne. It's getting harder to find people who want to touch the thing. San Francisco's Board of Supervisors have said that the city will receive the torch in a spirit of "alarm and protest"--not exactly the reaction China had in mind, I'm guessing.
Separating politics from the 2008 Beijing Games will be like trying to separate heat from fire. Who is going to watch the opening ceremonies in August and not think about Chinese police firing live ammunition into crowds of Tibetan monks, or the torture of prisoners, or the horrors of Darfur, or the muzzling of journalists?
Tibetans know that this is their year; that the Olympics have given them a once in a lifetime opportunity to be heard among the ka-ching! of trade interests that always seems to drown out the calls for freedom and decency. The IOC has repeatedly said that it doesn't want to involve itself in politics. It keeps talking about something called the "Olympic spirit". But in trying to crush the human spirit, it is China's leaders who have made the Games political. And they couldn't have done a better job.
Rebecca Novick is the Executive Producer of The Tibet Connection radio program thetibetconnection.org