Thursday, July 10, 2008

Games in crisis

Friday, 11 July, 2008

Will Beijing's Olympics, already the most politicised in a quarter of a century, turn out to be a public relations disaster or triumph? Much depends on whether critics of China's human rights record, including some athletes, choose to voice their feelings during the Games, and how China's behemoth, one-party state responds.

But anything from a violent demonstration to a peaceful political gesture, akin to American athletes' black power salute at Mexico in 1968, has the potential to send the Games into a PR tailspin.

Not since the tit-for-tat boycotts by Cold War rivals America and the Soviet Union in the 1980s have the policies of a host nation attracted so much scrutiny.

Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square, Darfur, Taiwan, Falun Gong, human rights abuses, press restrictions, riots and jailed dissidents have helped put Michael Phelps, Liu Xiang and Grant Hackett into the media shade.

Throw in a protest-riddled torch relay, terrorism fears, pollution, dodgy water, and the fact that athletes have sought clarification about what they can say politically, and it seems like Beijing's Olympics will be problem-free only for those careful about how and where they walk, talk, breathe, drink and think.

Australian cyclist Cadel Evans has been widely shown wearing "Free Tibet" slogans on his racing gear, but says he has no intention of breaching any IOC protocols in Beijing.

The IOC, while hoping the Olympics can serve to improve human rights in China, maintains the Games are a sporting celebration which should be beyond politics.

But as China engages with a world at what some see as a great coming-out party, it is discovering there is nothing like the Olympics for shining the spotlight on one nation in all its glories and shortcomings.

Deadly riots in March in the disputed Himalayan region of Tibet dominated world headlines.

Beijing accused the Dalai Lama of masterminding the turmoil, but the exiled spiritual leader has vehemently denied this and called on China to end its army-backed repression.

Tibet's government-in-exile says more than 200 people have been killed in China's crackdown, while Beijing insists the only deaths were 20 people killed by Tibetan "rioters".

Further talks have been scheduled between Chinese authorities and the Dalai Lama's envoy, but the exiled leader says they must be genuine and not merely window dressing for the international community.

The unrest in Tibet, which began when 300 Buddhist monks demanded the release of other monks from detention, has focused international attention on China's wider human rights record.

In April China jailed high-profile dissident Hu Jia, a move activists say was aimed at silencing dissent during the Games.

Amnesty International says dozens of people remain in jail almost 20 years after authorities brutally crushed a democracy protest in Tiananmen Square, killing officially 300 but as many as 3,000, according to the Red Cross.

The human rights group has called on China to give immediate access to Tibet to UN investigators, to cease arbitrary detention, intimidation and harassment of activists, and to allow full and free reporting across China for all journalists.

Such concerns spoiled an event which should represent nothing but good news - the Olympic torch relay.

At Sydney 2000 it was a feel-good coup. In 2008 it has been nothing short of a disaster, marred on four continents by clashes between protesters and Chinese supporters.

Disruption upset the original torch-lighting ceremony in Greece, police made dozens of arrests in London, the flame was extinguished twice in Paris, there were violent scuffles in Japan and Korea, and the route was changed to avoid protests in the US, Pakistan and

Some 10,000 Chinese Australians staged one of the biggest pro-Beijing rallies of the relay in Canberra.

A handful of world leaders are still threatening a boycott of the Games Opening Ceremony and Hollywood director Steven Spielberg has resigned as the Olympics artistic adviser.

Some EU officials, including European Parliament vice president Edward McMillan-Scott, have urged action ranging from an EU no-show at the Opening Ceremony to a full-scale walkout by European athletes.

Australian swimming great Dawn Fraser cited China's poor treatment of the disabled as one reason she won't be going to Beijing, and embarrassed Games officials were forced to apologise and withdraw an official volunteer guide which offended disabled people.

ll of these problems will seem tiny, however, if Beijing can't produc one key thing for three weeks in August - clean air.

Beijing's pollution levels are often three times the World Health Organisation's recommended maximum, and China's plans to reduce it include everything from cloud seeding to massive factory shutdowns and halving the number of cars on the road.

But if the promised "green Games" turn out to be brown, the IOC has vowed to postpone outdoor endurance events including the marathon, triathlon, road cycling, road walking and mountain biking.

Ethiopia's world marathon record-holder Haile Gebreselassie has already indicated he will pull out because of fears for his health.

Most of Australia's track and field team, also concerned about pollution, will forgo the opening ceremony to stay in training camps in Japan and Hong Kong.

Cutting pollution was one of the promises Beijing made to secure the Games.

Reducing restrictions on foreign media was another.

But the US watchdog group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the promised press freedoms - which do not apply to domestic media and expire after the Olympics - have been widely ignored, especially in Tibet.
It says other sensitive areas off-limits to reporters include the Muslim Xinjiang region, protests over social or environmental issues, HIV/AIDS patients, crackdowns on North Korean refugees and the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group.

China, a big investor in Sudan's oil industry and its largest weapons supplier, has also faced widespread Western criticism that it has not used its influence in Sudan to press for an end to the so-called Darfur genocide in which over 200,000 people have been killed.

China says the biggest threat to its Games comes from terrorism.

But Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna characterises the threat as "medium to low".

He says only one or two terrorist groups are capable of carrying out attacks in northeast Asia, and their ability to operate within China's tightly controlled society is very limited.

Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who famously declared Sydney's 2000 Games the best ever, predicted a year ago Beijing's would be even better.

But less than four months before the opening ceremony his successor Jacques Rogge admitted the Games were facing a "crisis".

Source: AAP
OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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