A torch that lights the way for oppression

The protests during the journey of the Olympic torch have cast a light not only on the Chinese government's crimes, but the long and grim history of Olympian repression.

THE JOURNEY of the Olympic torch was supposed to be a 58-day celebration of the Beijing Olympics. Through 21 countries and across 85,000 miles, the flame was meant to spotlight the idea that 21st century China was ready to claim its place as a modern economic superpower.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

Instead, the journey has been a public relations apocalypse, and an obstacle course for unsuspecting athletes and dignitaries, confronted by an international gauntlet of agitators.

In France, police alongside Chinese security officers had to use tear gas to keep protesters at bay, and officials had to extinguish the torch five separate times. In London, 37 people were arrested trying to impede the torch.

In San Francisco, thousands turned out to demonstrate, which led to a bizarre situation where the torchbearers ran a few yards, disappeared into a warehouse and then reappeared on a city bus. This isn't the esteemed expedition of the torch. This is Planes, Trains and Automobiles go to the Olympics.

China has blamed the protests on "a few Tibetan separatists." That would be news to the protester Charles Altekruse, who as a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team was forced to sit out the 1980 Moscow Games because of the U.S. boycott. "Today, my voice is the voice for thousands of people whose voices cannot be heard," said Altekruse, who lives not in Lhasa, but Berkeley.

The Olympic torch in Malaysia, during its journey to the Beijing Games (Tengku Bahar | AFP)

China's recent crackdown on Tibet has opened a view on a host of abuses throughout the Chinese mainland, as well as the complicity of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the West embedded in every abuse: the more than 1 million people displaced for Olympic facilities, the violation of labor standards so Western nations have an endless army of cheap labor, mass jailing of dissidents who dare to complain, and the environmental degradation of the country.

But the protests have also been aimed at the IOC and its efforts to shamelessly promote China's titanic economy. Juliana Barbassa of the Associated Press could not have been clearer, writing, "The torch's global journey was supposed to highlight China's growing economic and political power."

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IOC PRESIDENT Jacques Rogge lamented the protests, saying that the journey of the torch was supposed to be "a journey of harmony, bringing the message of peace to the people of different nationalities, cultures and creeds."

Would that it were.

The first torch run was actually the brainchild of Dr. Carl Diem, the organizer of Adolf Hitler's 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He convinced Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, that 3,422 young Aryan runners should carry burning torches along the 3,422 kilometer route from the Temple of Hera on Mount Olympus in Greece to the stadium in Berlin. The event would be captured by the regime's filmmaking prodigy, Leni Riefenstahl, and broadcast over radio.

In fact, Rogge's dream that the torch be a symbol of "peace, harmony and global unity" is reminiscent of Hitler's own words in 1936. "Sporting chivalrous contest," Hitler proclaimed before the torch's inaugural lighting, "helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore, may the Olympic flame never expire."

As Chris Bowlby wrote for BBC News, "It was planned with immense care by the Nazi leadership to project the image of the Third Reich as a modern, economically dynamic state with growing international influence."

Today, China, with the IOC's backing, wanted the torch to travel through the nations of Western Europe and the U.S., as well as Tibet, as a way to spread the gospel of China's global reach.

In 1936, Diem also planned the route with political considerations in mind. The torch was carried exclusively through European areas where the Third Reich wanted to extend its reach. When the flame made its way through Vienna, it was accompanied by mammoth pro-Nazi demonstrations. Two years later, Austria would be annexed.

Today, without question, there are people with dubious motives calling for a boycott of the Summer Games. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has hedged on attending teven event--even though Britain's Olympic Committee has already laid down the law that its athletes are forbidden from any political acts on Chinese soil.

The reptilian Sen. Hillary Clinton has said President Bush should boycott, even though she and her husband in the 1990s fought to make China a part of the World Trade Organization and repeatedly granted China Most Favored Nation trade status. Barack Obama joined Clinton in the "me too" chorus to see who can blame China for the economic maladies facing the U.S.

As for the Republicans, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan lamented in a commentary that President Bush and the GOP are "coddl[ing] Communist China."

None of these critics existed before people started protesting. And none of them will refrain from doing business with China in the future.

Protesters have held a light to the present hypocrisy of the Olympic torch. In expressing concern about the San Francisco protests, U.S. Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth said, "The only concern is our reputation as a country." Perhaps as this debacle runs its course, Ueberroth should be more concerned with the reputation of the IOC and the quadrennial orgy of sporting nationalism and corporate greed.

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CHINA'S BRUTAL crackdown against Tibetan protesters ahead of the Summer Olympics in Beijing carries with it a terrible echo from the past.

Scores of people, including school children, are reported dead, and more repression has been promised. The People's Daily, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party of China, said, "[We must] resolutely crush the 'Tibet independence' forces' conspiracy and sabotaging activities."

Even after decades of the occupation of Tibet, the ruthlessness of the crackdown has shocked much of the world. And it happened the week after the U.S. State Department removed China from its list of the world's worst human rights offenders.

Yet the concern expressed by world leaders has seemed less for the people of Tibet than the fate of the Summer Games, with Olympic cash deemed more precious than Tibetan blood.

The Olympics were supposed to be China's multibillion-dollar, super-sweet 16. Britain's Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch Brown, told the BBC, "This is China's coming-out party, and they should take great care to do nothing that will wreck that."

Other countries hankering after a piece of China's thriving economy have rushed to put daylight between the crackdown in Tibet and the Olympics.

Not surprisingly, the Bush White House, underwriting its war in Iraq on loans from Beijing, headed off any talk that President Bush would cancel his appearance at the Olympic Games when spokesperson Dana Perino said Bush believed that the Olympics "should be about the athletes and not necessarily about politics." Earlier, the European Union said a "boycott would not be the appropriate way to address the work for respect of human rights, which means the ethnic and religious rights of the Tibetans."

While the nations of the West have ruled out the idea of boycotting the Games, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in mid-April that the EU should at least consider boycotting the opening ceremony if violence continues. Later, Kouchner backtracked, saying, "We're not in favor of it. When you're dealing in international relations with countries as important as China, obviously when you make economic decisions, it's sometimes at the expense of human rights. That's elementary realism.''

Whatever happens next, China's crackdown is not happening in spite of the Beijing Olympics, but because of them. It is a bold play by China to set a tone for the remainder of the year.

Since its occupation began in 1951, China has suppressed Tibet's Buddhist faith and made Tibetans a persecuted minority in their own country via the mass migration of millions of Han Chinese. As monks and young Tibetans took their grievances to the streets, the government made clear it would brook no protest and tolerate no dissent.

But it's helpful to remember that in many countries, including our own, pre-Olympic repression is as much of a tradition as lighting the torch.

In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous Olympic Gang Sweeps. Gates also sent the LA Swat Team to Israel and West Berlin for special training.

The 1996 Atlanta Games were supposed to demonstrate the gains of the New South, but the New South ended up looking much like the old one, as public housing was razed to make way for Olympic venues, homeless people were chased off the streets, and perceived trouble-makers were arrested.

As Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project recently recalled in Vancouver, B.C.--another city poised to crack down on crime, drugs and homelessness in preparation for the Winter Olympics in 2010--Atlanta officials "had six ordinances that made all kinds of things illegal, including lying down. Lots of people were shipped out, and lots of people were put in jail. [The Olympic Planning Committee] actually built the city jail. Activists there called it the first Olympic project completed on time."

Repression followed the Olympic rings to Greece in 2004. As the radio program Democracy Now! reported at the time, authorities in Athens "round[ed] up homeless people, drug addicts and the mentally ill, requiring that psychiatric hospitals lock them up." The pre-Olympics "cleanup" included detaining or deporting refugees and asylum-seekers. Being the first Olympics after 9/11, police surveillance of immigrant Muslims and makeshift mosques in Athens greatly increased.

But the worst example of Olympic repression--and the most resonant to the current moment--came in 1968 in Mexico City, where hundreds of Mexican students and workers occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas on October 2, 1968, 10 days before the start of the Games. Recently declassified documents paint a picture of a massacre as cold and methodical as President Luis Echeverría's instructions.

Echeverría's aim was the same as China's: a pre-emptive strike to make sure that using the Olympic Games as a platform for protest would not be on the itinerary. The irony, of course, is that while Echeverría succeeded in crushing the protest movement outside the Games, on the inside, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in an expression of Black Power--cementing the 1968 Games as a place defined by discontent.

It's a lesson the 2008 athletes might remember. Officials may try to smother dissent on the streets of Lhasa and elsewhere in China, but at the Games themselves--from the path of the Olympic torch up Mount Everest to the opulent venues constructed in Beijing--the risk for protest, and the opportunity, is real.