“Do not mix sports and politics!” That defiant response from China’s rulers to the threat of a boycott of this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games does not stand the test of reality. Sport and politics have always been closely linked.
Obvious examples abound. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were dominated as much by Nazi propaganda as by the athletic events. During the Cold War, “ping pong diplomacy” helped revive official relations between China and the US. In 1990, Germany fielded a single Olympic team before the country reunified.
To claim that politics and sports can be any more separated in today’s media age than they were in the past is especially naive. The Olympics were awarded to Beijing for a mixture of economic and political reasons, and China wanted the Games for the same reasons. The current tension between China and (mostly) Western public opinion on the eve of the Beijing Olympics is the result of incompetence, hypocrisy and legitimate but potentially counterproductive indignation.
China’s incompetence in its treatment of the crisis in Tibet should come as no surprise. The Chinese regime is, quite simply, a victim of its inability to reform itself. China saw in the Olympics a symbolic opportunity to consolidate and celebrate its new status in the world. Caught by surprise in Tibet, and by the virulence and popularity of what they described as “anti-Chinese” sentiment, China’s rulers have resorted to the traditional tools of authoritarian regimes, turning their citizens’ deep nationalism and sense of humiliation against Western critics.
The Chinese sound almost as stunned by the supposed mistreatment of the Olympic torch in London, Paris and San Francisco as Americans were back in 2001: “Why do they hate us so much?” “What have we done to them?”
Self-isolated from global political realities and incapable of grasping the meaning of “civil society,” the Chinese regime encourages its public in expressions of defiance of all who fail to “respect China,” which only reinforces negative reactions.
But the West’s hypocrisy nearly matches the Chinese regime’s incompetence. The moment the international community “bestowed” the Olympics on China, the West demonstrated how little consideration it actually gives to human rights and democracy. The idea that the Chinese regime would quickly reform the country into an open, moderate, and benevolent giant was either a fraud, a gigantic misperception, or wishful thinking.
The dilemma posed by China for democratic regimes is understandable. Caught between their desperate need for finance and markets and their need to respond to their citizens’ sentiments, they oscillate between condemnation and reassurance of China, struggling to find a coherent path that defends the West’s principles without damaging its economic interests.
Now the West believes that it has found a “third way” by threatening to boycott the Olympics’ opening ceremony, but not the Games themselves. Thus, the Chinese people, the world’s athletes and a planet hungry for “bread and circuses” will not be deprived, and China’s rulers will not “get away with murder” in their contempt for human rights and international public opinion. The problem is that such a choice requires governments’ absolute determination to stand by their word.
The power of indignation is a necessary component of a transparent and interdependent world that has lost the privilege of ignorance. But selective responses to the actions of dictatorships can be problematic and counterproductive.