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Platform for nationalism and greed
Staring down the Olympic monster

By David Zirin | September 3, 2004 | Page 9

THE MODERN Olympic games began in 1898 as a place for imperial rivals, in the process of carving up the world from Cuba to the Congo to the Philippines, to wave flags and use sports to whip up a nationalist frenzy. Since those times, the Olympics have been a stage for what is both disgusting and inspiring about the intersection of politics and sports.

The 1936 games were a platform for Hitler to showcase his "new Germany" as legitimate before the eyes of the world. But 1936 also saw Jesse Owens win four gold medals and humiliate all of the Nazi's Aryan pretensions.

And 1968 in Mexico City saw the pre-Olympic slaughter of Mexican students to crush any protest to the games. It also saw Tommy Smith and John Carlos' immortal Black Power salute, which crystallized the revolt of a generation.

The Greek Olympics are a fitting chapter in this history. The Athens games arrived bathed from head to toe in blood and dust. It didn't make NBC's gauzy coverage, but Amnesty International estimates that anywhere between 40 and 150 construction workers died in workplace accidents building Olympic facilities.

In the last push of round the clock preparation alone, 13 laborers were killed at the service of making Athens, in the words of one Olympic official, "habitable for a global audience." As Andreas Zazopoulos, head of the Greek Construction Workers Union said, "We have paid for the Olympic games in blood."

City authorities also rounded up thousands of homeless people requiring that psychiatric hospitals lock them up. Parole was denied throughout the prison system for the duration of the Games, and, in blatant violation of the Greek Constitution, thousands of Special Forces troops from the U.S., Britain and Israel patrolled the streets armed to the teeth. As one observer said, "We are under a state of occupation. I feel like I am in Gaza."

Yet Greece also reminded us, like in 1936 or 1968, that the Olympics can serve as an international platform not only for nationalism, but also resistance. This year the target of that resistance was unmistakably the United States--and its war on the world.

Stirrings of this were evident early on as U.S. performers and teams were booed with gusto by the sparse crowds. When Puerto Rico defeated the U.S. basketball "Dream Team" by 19 points, and players beat their chests and waved the Puerto Rican flag to rapturous cheers, it was viewed as an act of defiance. It was also the tip of the iceberg.

The Iraqi Olympic soccer squad was perhaps the surprise of the entire Olympics, advancing to the semifinals despite the war and occupation that has gripped their country. Yet amidst cheers and triumph, they were infuriated to learn that President George W. Bush had launched campaign ads featuring their Olympic glory as a brilliant byproduct of the war on terror.

Bush has also been trumpeting their exploits in stump speeches. Bush brayed with bravado in Oregon, "The image of the Iraqi soccer team playing in this Olympics, it's fantastic, isn't it? It wouldn't have been free if the United States had not acted."

This compelled the Iraqi soccer team to respond. Midfielder and team leader Salih Sadir said, "Iraq as a team does not want Mr. Bush to use us for the presidential campaign. He can find another way to advertise himself."

Sadir has reason to be upset. He was the star player for the professional soccer team in Najaf. Najaf has in recent weeks been swamped by U.S. troops and the new Iraqi army. "I want the violence and the war to go away from the city," said Sadir, "We don't wish for the presence of Americans in our country. We want them to go away."

Sadir's teammates were less diplomatic. Midfielder Ahmed Manajid, said angrily, "How will [Bush] meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women? He has committed so many crimes." Manajid is from another Iraqi city that has been in a state of siege, Falluja. He said that if he were not playing soccer he would "for sure" be fighting as part of the resistance.

"I want to defend my home. If a stranger invades America and the people resist, does that mean they are terrorists? Everyone [in Falluja] has been labeled a terrorist. These are all lies. Falluja people are some of the best people in Iraq."

Usually when there is political unrest on Olympic teams, the coach tries to be a mitigating force with the media. But Iraqi soccer coach Adnan Hamad also went public saying, "My problems are not with the American people. They are with what America has done in Iraq: destroy everything."

Their comments provoked an uproar aimed at the media for reporting their story. Journalists were accused by the International Olympic Committee of "taking advantage of naïve athletes." A British Olympic official even had the gall to tell reporters, "Politics have no place in the Olympic games!"

Coach Hamad responded to this by saying, "One cannot separate politics and sport because of the situation in [Iraq] right now. You cannot speak about a team that represents freedom. We do not have freedom in Iraq, we have an occupying force."

The comments of the Iraqi players and coach caused Bush to scuttle a trip to Athens to view the team in the quarterfinals and further exploit their efforts for his re-election. They also were able to expose the upside down world of U.S. foreign policy. Occupation is not liberation and freedom cannot exist at gunpoint.

The great divide in Iraq is not between the Sunni and Shia like Sadir and Manajid, who played together with such wicked grace, but between foreign troops and the Iraqi people--occupier and occupied.

The Iraqi soccer team may not have won the gold, but they earned a place on an ultimately more important platform along side Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and every athlete who has stared back at the Olympic leviathan and refused to blink.

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