Sport is not above humanity.
Several months ago I was stopped outside my local supermarket by two wheel-chair bound teenagers in matching tracksuits with those oversized charity raffle tickets for sale. Having spent a disastrous 3 weeks of my own late teenage-hood failing to sell raffle tickets for the wheelchair sports association I began to reach into my bag for my wallet as I asked them what they were selling them for. "To get our aussie team to the Special Olympics in Beijing" was the reply.
"Oh!" I heard myself exclaim with an unexpected passion. "No! Noone should be going. Not the able-bodied either. Do you know what's going on over there, let alone because of the Olympics?"
The boy looked at me dumbfounded, the girl recovered faster and said quickly "Sport has nothing to do with that stuff."
I didn't want to pick an argument with them so I refused and apologised again but suggested they do some research into it and shuffled inside before I could be overwhelmed by the shame of my deed. You see, many Australians, I'd even venture to say the vast majority of Australians, would consider that behaviour to have been that most terrible of things: unAustralian - not because I said no to some poor disabled kiddies but because I said no to SPORTSPEOPLE. Worse, I suggested that sportspeople should not pursue their sport with a single-minded obliviousness to the world in which they live.
At the time that I committed my deed the issue hadn't been discussed in the media since the small flicker of psuedo-concern for a week or so after games had been awarded to China. Now, as the games approach, with the Europeans taking the lead the issue is being bounced around again and the usual "debate" is occurring. Those who believe the games should not be boycotted make statements such as "Sport is above politics" they are nodded at slowly as though they have said something wise and proper, as though they have ACTUALLY OUTLINED ANY KIND OF ARGUMENT AT ALL and the issue is considered dealt with. Those on the other side, who dare to possibly consider that maybe the politics of the situation should perhaps be taken into account, are attacked and even intelligent, usually courageous, political journalists will touch on it only briefly and carefully leave it up to the conscience of the viewer as they do when discussing religion or abortion rights. "Ok," I can hear some of you saying, "so what's your argument FOR a boycott?"
Fair question and it is better answered by Chinese activists who are closer to the situation than I. Sen. Andrew Bartlett, whose blog is a great one to read to keep the faith alive that there are politicians who apply both intelligence and conscience to their work rather than PR, provides this link to the article "THE REAL SITUATION IN PRE-OLYMPICS CHINA" by Teng Biao and Hu Jia (who was arrested and sentenced to 3 and a half yrs jail in China this week for writing such things.) It is a good article for those with sport tunnel vision because it addresses Olympic-specific related abuses - and not just human rights abuses but sportsman's rights abuses too. For example, the Chinese government is barring their top sportspeople from competing if their political views are suspect, or (as in the case of their national disabled discus champion who received his disabling injury at the Tienanmen Massacre) if their injuries remind people of the truth.
"Sure that's bad, really awful," some will continue to argue "but it's not the individual athlete's job to make political statements"
First of all this is just a politically correct way of asking: why the hell should an athlete give a damn about another human being? and, frankly if I have to answer that one for you then get the hell away from my blog. No, seriously.
But lets assume that it is arguable that the athlete's shouldn't have to care that they will be performing in stadia built by the forcible removal of people from their homes some of whom are in prison or re-education labor camps for objecting. The sheer fact is that there is no way round a political statement in this case. There is a choice which must be made here: to go or not to go, there is no default position, a statement WILL be made one way or the other. If you go you support the Chinese government AND the olympic committee's choice to award the games to China, if you don't go then you care about human rights. There is NO ESCAPING a statement. SPORT IS NOT ABOVE HUMANITY. The olympic committee has put every athlete into this position - not China, not political philosophers or activists - by awarding the games to China in the first place. I am not suggesting that any individual athlete should have to bare the weight of a boycott on their own, I am suggesting that every single athlete should refuse to be used by the olympic organisation and China. Look at that phrase: "every single" or "every one" - it takes each individual for it to happen, each person who says they won't do it because others won't do it is guilty of stopping it from happening AND is either a supporter of China and the olympic committee's choice to award the games to China, or, quite simply, a selfish coward.
"But what do you say to an athlete who doesn't want to give up the opportunity to achieve what they have spent so much of their life working towards?"
A) It's bloody horrible and the olympic committee should not have put you in this situation but frankly the olympics doesn't deserve to be the focus of anyone's life ambitions if it is this kind of an organisation. If you really care about being the fastest, strongest, highest, get your sports union to organise alternate meets where you can do your best times and prove you're all about the sport and not the fanfare which feeds the corrupt olympic movement... or are you wanting to jump on that gravy-train yourself?
B) Sit down for two seconds at a computer, google torture and get some damn perspective. It's not that I don't support and admire anyone who strives to be the best at anything they do - nor that I am oblivious to the important role that sport plays in western countries inspiring technological and medical breakthroughs or allowing people to channel tribal emotions safely into the love of their team instead of into violence (not always successfully.) But sport is a pastime, an entertainment just like any other pastime and equal to them: despite the Australian worship of sport the truth is that a brilliant runner has no moral superiority over a brilliant chess player and in fact both are morally inferior to a doctor or a charity worker or a human being living under an oppressed regime who has the courage to become an activist. If you are really honestly willing to actively support the pageantry of the Chinese government and the olympic committee which was willing to be bought by them for the sake of a few minutes of your life which, experience tells us you will spend the rest of your days struggling to get over and move on from, then you need a serious adjustment. If you make a stand for humanity, you'll still be wheeled out every four years to wax nostalgic about your olympic experience but yours will have made more of a difference and lasted longer than it took for your record to be broken - and it won't just be on sports shows either.
"Why not go and say something on the podium about human rights?"
Because this stand isn't just about China, it's about standing up to the olympic committee for giving it to China in the first place. The committee's protestations that the focus on China would help were disingenuous at best. Sport simply does not matter enough for it to make any positive change for China - OFCOURSE this was going to be negative for Chinese citizens, OFCOURSE it would be taken as/spun as support for the Chinese government. And the olympic committee did not care. We all know how corrupt the olympic committee has been for decades, who knows what China offered them but it was enough even to overlook the very suspect drug-use if not at least child-abuse practices of Chinese sporting associations let alone the wider political abuses. Going to the games and saying "I support human rights" while wearing your medal will be a thoroughly empty, hypocritical PR gesture - because you have allowed the games to occur and the olympic committee remains immune. Make your human rights statement at a press conference the night you make the team and say how you lament the posiiton you've been put in by the olympic committee but that you will not be going - that AND empty stadia will make an actual impact - not easily editable too-late-now statements. Don't allow yourselves to be used by an organisation which has shown itself to care about nothing but that its members may continue to live the lives to which they have become accustomed... where's the sport in that? And where's your dignity?