Bush at the Olympics

Why it's good he's in Beijing.

For those of us who used to be Summer Olympics junkies the way that baseball slugger Josh Hamilton used to be an actual heroin junkie, these are some pretty thin times. And not simply because chronically underweight actress Mia Farrow is webcasting an alternative "Darfur Olympics" in Africa designed to call attention to that particular Sudanese horror show.

The plain truth is that for all sorts of political, cultural, and athletic reasons, the Olympics just don't pack the oomph they used to. That's a good thing, by the way. It's the combined effect of the end of the Cold War, a vast expansion in the menu of entertainment options, and the development of individual sports into more and more insular and professionalized activities (track and field, for instance, only created its own world championship meet in the 1980s; prior to that, the Olympics effectively played that role). It's a better world when water polo matches and basketball games aren't proxy wars and the public at large can more easily ignore god-awful official mascots such as Izzy and Amik. (Article continues below video.)



Earlier this summer, Reason.tv asked D.C. residents whether the U.S. should boycott the Olympics in Beijing. Click above to watch the responses.

That said, there will still be immense quadrennial hoopla, some of it even entertaining, surrounding the Beijing Olympics. NBC is threatening 3,600 hours of coverage (and that's without even considering adding the 56-pound weight throw back into the mix), all anchored by Bob Costas, whose main selling point is that he's not Bryant Gumbel. American swimmer Michael Phelps is pushing for a record eight (count 'em, Mark Spitz) golds, Ralph Lauren has designed the U.S. gymnasts' uniforms, and it should be nothing less than mesmerizing to see which athletes actually drop dead from sucking in too much smog. And, of course, what sorts of doping charges will stick? (Hopefully none will cling to five-time Olympian Dara Torres, the great hope for all fortysomething out-of-shapers still harboring medal dreams.)

But the most interesting performance of this games may have already taken place a couple of days ago, starting in Thailand of all places. That's when President George W. Bush actually sounded presidential for a change and made an unambiguous statement about human rights and China:

"We speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly, and labor rights not to antagonize China's leaders, but because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential....We press for openness and justice, not to impose our beliefs but to allow the Chinese people to express theirs....

"The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings."

A Chinese spokesman responded with a courteous screw-you: "We firmly oppose any words or acts that interfere in other countries internal affairs, using human rights and religion and other issues." At the opening of the new U.S. embassy in China, Bush reiterated his theme of freedom and engagement: "We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful."

If you care about civil liberties, foreign policy, government spending, expansions in executive power, Social Security reform, traditional African dancing, or you name it, Bush's presidency has been the sort of ongoing disaster-cum-embarrassment that the baseball team he used to own, the Texas Rangers, faces on an annual basis. And there is plenty to criticize in terms of Bush's current appearance in China. Not his going to the opening ceremonies of the Games in the first place, but his failure to meet openly with Chinese dissidents or directly address a nation-wide audience in China.

Despite the high-flying rhetoric of athletic competition, the modern Olympics, restarted in 1896, were conceived of as a political act—a way for the French to avenge on the playing field their battlefield defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (it's one reason why participants compete as part of national teams rather than as individuals). True to this origin, the Olympics have always provided a stage for world politics, both official and unofficial, well-intentioned and murderous. Hence the grotesque displays of Nazism in 1936, the student protests in '68, the terrorist atrocities of '72, Eric Rudolph's bombings in '96, and various boycotts, such as President Jimmy Carter's withdrawal of the United States team from the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Carter's boycott, done in the name of human rights, accomplished absolutely nothing. I'm willing to say that Bush is a worse president than Carter (who at least deregulated airline ticket pricing and interstate trucking, and invited Willie Nelson to the White House), but it's Bush who has gotten it right when it comes to superpower-charged Olympics.

To have Bush out there, saying what he's saying where he's saying it—and pursuing a larger policy of engagement via trade and other forms of exchange—is absolutely the best way to pull China into something approaching Western-style democracy, complete with robust individual rights and the sort of economy that will ultimately force governments to loosen up. Milton Friedman famously said that as people get richer, they demand the ability to live however they want—that economic freedom, which increases prosperity, helps create the conditions for political freedom. It seems clear that the Chinese government, like all governments, doesn't want to yield power if it can avoid doing so. It's also clear that the more a country trades with the world—for goods, services, and even cultural identities—the less its government can control its people. Here's hoping that the Beijing Olympics, regardless of the predictable and bizarre repressions going on right now to ensure a "stain-free" event, push that process along.

Nick Gillespie is the editor of reason.tv and reason online.

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  • ||

    Bush's public diplomacy about human rights has been by far the best aspect of his presidency.

    This speech follows in the footsteps of those he gave during the Lebanese anti-Syrian uprisings, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

  • ||

    ... and the public at large can more easily ignore god-awful official mascots such as Izzy and Amik.

    The designer of Izzy should have been flogged in the public square for crimes against taste. I bought my first wife a Misha from the Moscow games and figured the value might increase after Carter's boycott. Alas, we divorced and she has probably since set it afire in a voodoo-like attempt to harm me. Mentioning Dave Wottle or Dick Fosbury will bring a smile to my face.


    All of this has nothing to do with the articles main points. I'm just rambling about the Olympics.

    And Olga Korbut was cute too.

  • gmatts||

    "The United States believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings."


    Is it me or does this sentence seem poorly constructed? Wouldn't "deserve the fundamental natural right that is liberty" make much more sense. Liberty isn't a right to be deserved, it's a condition. Whereas a right is something to be deserved.

    No matter, though. I think Bush believes in these types of things in theory, not practice.

  • Neu Mejican||

    gmatts,

    Is it me or does this sentence seem poorly constructed?

    It is just you.

    Liberty isn't a right to be deserved, it's a condition.

    Nah...

    "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

  • Ba-dum-bump||

    President Bush attended the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Nick Gillespie explains why it's a good thing that he did.


    Because he couldn't do any damage around here for a few days?

  • LT Nixon||

    Wake me up when they start playing rollerball instead of schnooze-inducing track and field events. Georgia and Russia wouldn't need to fight a war if there was violence on roller-skates to settle international disputes.

  • ||

    I'm willing to say that Bush is a worse president than Carter

    So you have a brain stem. No need to brag.

  • Former Olympic Women\'s Gymnas||

    "And Olga Korbut was cute too."

    Sure, if you're into creepy.

  • Former Olympic Women\'s Gymnas||

    Ma'am , your daughter is extremely hot and overdeveloped, we have to cut her from the team.

    No, she is very talented I suggest she join the rhythmic gymnastics team

  • Former Olympic Women\'s Gymnas||

    Were you really a coach, Former Olympic Women's Gymnastics Coach II? If so, perhaps I know you...

    BTW rhythmic gymnastics is kinda interesting.

  • ||

    Now, as I understand FISA, every phone call and e-mail from Beijing into the US can be intercepted by our government, right?

  • Josh||

    "....Costas, whose main selling point is that he's not Bryant Gumbel."

    Nice.

  • Seward||

    Given that Bush's statements are unlikely to be broadcast in China I'm not quite sure what his presence will do there. Of course he'll be shown on Chinese television watching the opening ceremonies and this will reinforce a lot of what these games are about.

  • Neu Mejican||

    Seward,

    The audience for his comments was the world outside China, and the Chinese leadership.

    And the few people in China that can gain access to them in a round-about way.

  • ||

    The real surprise may not be how silly moral panics of the past look today, but how disheveled today's rational high ground will look in the future.

    Any who fell into the Global Warming scare is an idiot and deserves ridicule now and in the future.

    Terrorism: not so much.

    Point being that there actually are terrorists. Over reacting to reality is not the same thing as over reacting to ghosts.

  • KipEsquire||

    One thing I've noticed -- and this is not necessarily directly toward NG -- is that the original apologist gobbledygook regarding the 2008 Olympics was what wonderful things it would do for the oppressed Chinese people -- ping-pong meets glasnost, etc.

    Then, when the West could no longer pretend that there would in fact be little benefit to China's non-elites and that the Chinese government actually turned up the repressive dial, the bromide suddenly became, "We can't change anything anyway, so why not go ahead and enjoy the fun?"

    People went from being naive to being lobotomized.

  • Untermensch||

    I was just at a conference in Shanghai where a former Chinese ambassador to France was supposed to keynote on the subject of intercultural communications. What we were treated to instead I can only describe as the most polite version of a big finger to the U.S. you can imagine...

  • ||

    Despite criticism from numerous human rights groups, President Bush attended the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. Nick Gillespie explains why it's a good thing that he did.

    Because it's harder to fuck up America when you're in another country?

    That was easy.

  • Seward||

    Neu Mejican,

    The audience for his comments was the world outside China...

    The vast majority of whom don't care.

    ...and the Chinese leadership.

    Why should they care exactly if no one in China is watching and no major players outside of China are going to change their activities re: China over internal actions by the Chinese government?

  • Neu Mejican||

    Seward,

    The fact that a major trading partner, with substantial political influence, is willing to state openingly exactly what you are doing that bothers them may influence the direction of your future decisions...particularly if you value your relationship with them and the others that they may influence.

    Popular kid* says to the crowd, I don't think I like the way that bully is treating the other kids...in front of all the popular kids. If being part of the "it" crowd matters to the bully, they may change their behavior.

    *Yes, I recognize that GWB has done much damage to the utility of any analogy between the US and popular kid, but work with me here.

  • NP||

    I gotta say Bush has handled the volatile Olympic situation pretty well. And the U.S.'s selection of Lomong as their flag bearer was simply a masterstroke. Couldn't have made a better decision.

  • ||

    Bush's public diplomacy about human rights has been by far the best aspect of his presidency.


    Joe, cmon! You did not mean this....

    China is the GOP Wet Dream - no worker rights, inspection laws, minimum wage, environmental concern, child labor laws, white slavery laws, etc.

    Newt Gingrich is beating off right now....

  • Neu Mejican||

    joshua corning,

    Any who fell into the Global Warming scare is an idiot and deserves ridicule now and in the future.

    Terrorism: not so much.

    Point being that there actually are terrorists. Over reacting to reality is not the same thing as over reacting to ghosts.


    Of please, terrorism poses about as much risk to any particular individual as space rocks, and as for its ability to create widespread harm to our society, well that pretty much sounds like the boogie man to me.

    But, of course, predictions about the future are not "reality" even if based on careful scientific study. So, in that sense, if

    a) nothing is done to address global warming

    and

    b) the predictions turn out to be wrong, then people might ridicule those who believed those predictions

    Much like we ridicule people who used to believe that ulcers were caused by stress, I guess.

  • Neu Mejican Anacoluthian||

    Of please, terrorism

    Take your pick on solutions to this:

    a) Of course, terrorism

    or

    b) Oh please, terrorism

    Time for a beer.

    I may move this topic to the weekend open thread...

    Terrorism panic vs. AGW which is more like a ghost?

  • Seward||

    Neu Mejican,

    The fact that a major trading partner, with substantial political influence, is willing to state openingly exactly what you are doing that bothers them may influence the direction of your future decisions...particularly if you value your relationship with them and the others that they may influence.

    Besides some words does the Chinese government have anything else to be concerned with?

    As for the "it crowd," China's rise as an economic power makes it part of the "it crowd."

  • ||

    My Good Buddy "Johnny Clarke"-

    Now, as I understand FISA, every phone call and e-mail from Beijing into the US can be intercepted by our government, right?

    Dude! The gov't gets notified every time you deposit $10K in your bank account (over some "unspecified" time-frame).

    My personal experience is that I have actually been "audited" by the IRS for depositing $18K in my 20+ yr old "checking account" over a three month period. (I merely sold a car-(68 GTO)- for "cash", and also received some 'gifts' from my relatives...)

    'Selling a car' vs 'spying on our enemies'- where should our Gov't focus it's enforcement?

  • ||

    I'm willing to say that Bush is a worse president than Carter

    That's pretty harsh, considering this relic of election years past:

    Carter is the vestige of a hollowed-out America that is (thankfully) largely forgotten. For Christ's sake, Carter wasn't even a libertine in the '70s (a gloriously underappreciated decade), but a finger-wagging, sweater-wearing, thermostat-lowering, lusting-only-in-his-heart, Olympic-boycotting, grain-embargoing moralist who mispronounces "nuclear" with a panache matched only by the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    More specifically, Carter is the biggest recent presidential failure in terms of foreign policy. Bush may be a moron on this score, too, but no one doubts American power (though, to echo Clinton from last night, they may well be right to question its wisdom).

  • Neu Mejican||

    Occam's Toothbrush,

    You seem pretty confident that you understand Carter (and the 70's) for someone born half a decade after he left office.

  • ||

    You seem pretty confident that you understand Carter (and the 70's) for someone born half a decade after he left office.

    Having cast my first presidential ballot for Ford, I remember and understand both Carter and the '70s.

    They both sucked. Unarguably, unequivicably, unreservedly sucked. Fans of the Village People and DEVO might diagree, but I'm not here to argue with the musically tasteless. GWB is so far below Carter in presidential competence and morality you'd need a sonar rather than a plumb bob to measure the difference.

  • ||

    Nick Gillespie is a left wing scum bag.

  • MJ||

    "China is the GOP Wet Dream - no worker rights, inspection laws, minimum wage, environmental concern, child labor laws, white slavery laws, etc."

    No it is not, China is communist, the worker's need no legal protections because their Party runs the State. It is a leftist's wet dream.

    Do you really think Socialist's actually give a tinker's damn about the proletariat class they claim to champion?

    Seriously, China is what you get when Communists face reality and deal with the fact that their ideology does not work in the real world, but maintain the facade of it as a rationalization for their power.

  • ||

    I got one question: why is it such a big deal for President Bush or any other big-time U.S. government officials to be at the Olympics in China? I thought the athletes were funded by private sponsors, not the government. Is the Federal government paying these athletes/coaches expenses? I'm not at all implying that the government should be involved, but if they're not, why is it a big deal for them to be at the Olympics?

  • ||

    Many people blather about human rights, including the unspeakable Jimmy Carter, who in recent years has been a friend to some of the world's nastiest dictators. (On top of that Carter has become an outspoken anti-Semite.)

    President Bush has actually done something to promote human rights. He has overthrown one of the world's most brutal and dangerous dictators and made possible the first democratically elected government in the Arab world. Bush has planted the seeds of of democracy and human rights in the Islamic world. If those seeds take root and grow Bush will go down in history as a great president. If they don't then we will be fighting much bigger wars than that in Iraq in the future.

    I can never tell whether the Bushophobes believe that the Islamofacists aren't really a threat or whether they simply don't believe that classical western values are worth defending.

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