Olympics: The Games Aren’t Political?

Last week’s dispute over Internet access for foreign reporters is still reverberating, only partially resolved. More Web sites have become available to reporters inside the Olympic Games’ Main Press Center and around the country, although plenty remain blocked (those perceived as being backed by the Falun Gong and those supporting Tibetan independence most notably). Amnesty International was available again, at least at this writing, as was the BBC’s Chinese-language Web site; reporters inside the Main Press Center say they can now pull up cpj.org as well.


IOC President Jacques Rogge seems ready to wash his hands of responsibility for the continuing censorship: “I am not going to make an apology for something that the IOC is not responsible for. We are not running the Internet in China,” he told reporters in Beijing.


The question of whatever happened to the IOC’s internal communications system, with Beijing IOC representative Kevan Gosper intimating that secret deals had been cut with China, and Rogge showing up in Beijing on Friday denying any such thing, only serves to make the opaque workings of the IOC just that much murkier.


China certainly wants to move away from this story. Its papers led the way, fronting President Hu Jintao’s meeting with select foreign reporters before the weekend started. The message was clear. “Don’t mix politics with Games: Hu” the official China Daily ran upper left on its weekend front page, and the online version of the paper urged everyone to “Please put politics away from Olympics.” In case you didn’t get the message, the lead editorial of the paper’s hard-copy weekend edition ran: “Excuse of human rights” with the breakout quote, “Politicizing the Olympic Games does not conform to the Olympic spirit.” That piece took on the United States, taking President George W. Bush to task for meeting at the White House with exiled Chinese dissidents and criticizing the U.S House of Representatives for calling for an improvement in China’s human rights record. The West was trying to foist its values on China once again, the paper said.


It’s not an unpopular attitude, and not unique to China. Before getting on the plane for Hong Kong, I survived an on-air grilling on Thursday (it almost dissolved into a shouting match) from Al-Jazeera’s Arabic service, which accused CPJ, or at least me, of “politicizing the Olympics.” And a caller on a radio show I appeared on in Philadelphia on Tuesday said he hated to see the Games ruined by what he felt are extraneous issues–he had two sons taking part in the Games. Even a Wired reporter asked me what was so seriously bad about censoring material–Falun Gong? Tibet? Amnesty International?–which she proposed many deemed irrelevant to the Games. I told her that the Olympics is about more than who is the world’s fastest runner but, still, the criticism stung and the doubt was enough to make me go back to look at some source material.


First, to be clear: CPJ hasn’t “politicized” the Games by calling for a boycott, or linking the Games to China’s foreign or domestic policies.


What we have done is hold China and the IOC accountable to the very clear and specific promise that they made in 2001 when the Games were awarded. “There will be no restrictions on journalists in reporting on the Olympic Games,” the Beijing organizers promised in their official bid to host the Games. The IOC confirmed China’s promise in its evaluation of competing cities’ bids, saying that “it was confirmed to the Commission that there will be no restrictions on media reporting.”


Censoring sources of information breaks that promise directly. Blocking Web sites is a fundamental restriction. Chapter Two of CPJ’s recent special report Falling Short, gives the history and background of that promise. Other sections of Falling Short explain how China’s media (and its very vibrant online world) work, survive, and even thrive under a government determined to censor information.   


But how about politics and the Games, anyway? The Council on Foreign Relations has an excellent slideshow, narrated by Frank Deford, a deep-thinking sports writer if there ever was one, which makes it clear that the modern Games have always taken place in a political environment. 


The Olympic Charter itself speaks to the issue eloquently. Article One of the document’s opening Fundamental Principles says “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” It’s the “fundamental ethical principles” that seem to me most relevant in this situation. Article Two–“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”–speaks to something broader than athletic competition.


So the Games aren’t political? On Friday, Rogge and Liu Qi, chairman of the Beijing Organizing Committee, signed their names on the Wall for Peace and Friendship, which was unveiled in the Olympic Village’s Peace Square.  Rogge wrote, “The world today is a difficult place to live in with many armed conflicts between and within nations” but added that the Olympic village isn’t one of those places. Liu said the wall will leave a precious legacy and promote peace, friendship and global development. China Daily also noted that Rogge had renewed the ancient Greek tradition of the “Olympic truce” and called on all nations to observe it during the Games.


These are shining internationalist ideals, transcending the narrow “Go Team! Go (insert your country’s name here)!” approach. Those ideals are political to the core. That was the very idea of the modern Games.


If China doesn’t want to agree to the principles of transparency held widely all across the globe, that’s China’s decision. But it should not mislead by promising to ensure press freedom, as it did when it wanted win the Games in 2001, and then dismiss the issue as outside political pressure when it fails to live up to its word.


And perhaps the IOC should revisit its founding principles and consider ways to apply them in the future in a manner that respects its charter.


(Reporting from Hong Kong)