No Politics in Beijing?
posted by Deven Desai
It is night in Beijing. Men walk up to a line. Some shake their heads left and right to loosen up. Others roll shoulders and shake arms. They all settle and crouch at the line. The gun sounds. The men race. Just over twenty seconds later two British men have finished second and third. Later when they receive their medals, they raise their hands as a political statement. Wait, that won’t happen.
Remember Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and the Mexico City Olympics? O.K. neither do I. I was not born yet. Still the image and the impact of the event stuck around long enough that I knew about it growing up. And the image of their stance on the medal podium is still powerful.
According to the Daily Mail “British Olympic chiefs are to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China’s appalling human rights record – or face being banned from travelling to Beijing.” The Mail also reports that a British football team was ordered to give the Nazi salute in 1938. Last as of the Mail’s article of February 10 the British Olympic Association stated that “any athlete who refuses to sign the agreements will not be allowed to travel to Beijing.” The BOA seems to have backed off the position and claims it will not gag the athletes.
So maybe the British and Australians (who also are asking their athletes to make no political comments) just want to get along with everyone and Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and Belgium are willing to allow speech. But, before folks in the U.S. and elsewhere jump in and proclaim superiority, remember that at least in the United States, much of the country shunned Messrs. Smith and Carlos after their moment of speech.
The Olympics seek to be non-political. And perhaps athletes should not use the venue for their political speech. Then again so little today is viewed as unconnected and anyone in the spotlight seems to be a voice for something maybe that apolitical ideal is not so real. The film Chariots of Fire has a key moment when Eric Liddle (born in China by the way) one of the runners refuses to run on the Sabbath. The position caused an uproar in the film although he apparently knew of the problem and trained for the 400m earlier. In other words, when one has a moment, a moment when the world is watching, and believes in something would a piece of paper stop one from saying what must be said? Who knows? Maybe that same sense of duty would make the words stick in one’s throat. Maybe the best way to show up the host county is to demonstrate excellence and win. But excellence takes many forms. One could win and still wish to make an excellent, decent, maybe even respectful comment that shows the world something is wrong but without vitriol. A raised fist may do just that.
Whatever mode of expression is best, demanding that someone sign a piece of paper to give up one’s speech runs contrary to the excellence the Olympics seeks to foster and ask of athletes and perhaps by extension of us all.