China

The Olympics Were Never "Only About the Athletes"

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The Washington Post's Anne Applebaum takes down a list of standard excuses for "going along to get along" at the Beijing Olympics. Highlights:

"The Olympics are a force for good." Not always! The 1936 Olympics, held in Nazi Germany, were an astonishing propaganda coup for Hitler. It's true that the star performance of Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field great, did shoot some holes in the Nazi theory of Aryan racial superiority. But Hitler still got what he wanted out of the Games. With the help of American newspapers such as the New York Times, which opined that the Games put Germany "back in the family of nations again," he convinced many Germans, and many foreigners, to accept Nazism as "normal."…

"A boycott doesn't solve anything." Well, doesn't it? Some boycotts do help solve some things. The boycott of South Africa by international competitions was probably the single most effective weapon the international community ever deployed against the apartheid state. ("They didn't mind about the business sanctions," a South African friend once told me, "but they minded—they really, really minded—about the cricket.") The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics helped undermine Soviet propaganda about the invasion of Afghanistan and helped unify the Western world against it.

Her powerful kicker:

No one involved in the preparations for this year's Olympics really believes that this is "only about the athletes," or that the Beijing Games will be an innocent display of sporting prowess, or that they bear no relation to Chinese politics. I don't see why the rest of us should believe those things, either.

More on the upcoming Games here.

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  1. I like the idea of all of the athletes shaving their heads for the opening cerimonies. The ChiComs are the most arrogant bastards on earth. They are used to dealing with Western business people and Chinese Studies types who depend on the goodwill of the government to do their work and think that they can bully their way out of anything. I hope the athletes give them fits.

  2. I agree it would be a better idea for some of the athletes to make political statements at the games rather than have a boycott which would allow them to win all the medals like the Soviets did in 1980.

  3. Its worth pointing out the 1988 Seoul Olympics, which were attended by everybody but North Korea, did a lot to push South Korea away from a military dictatorship and into a stable, liberal democracy.

  4. Will there be hulking, hairy-chinned, Chinese she-male swimmers like in the old days?
    That would be so cool.

  5. The Chinese have never been “hulking”. You need East Germans for that.

  6. They absolutely should make political statements at the games. What are the Chinese going to do about it? Their whole facade of being a pretty normal growing nation will be blown if they do the regular beatdown on an athlete from a foreign country. They’ll just have to grin and bear it. Or they’ll strike out reflexively and look like the thugs they are.

  7. Putting aside the probability that the Olympics are the clinical trials for new undetectable performance enhancers, I would prefer they be run as sporting events. I would suppose that Jesse Owens opened a few minds domestically, too, and that had the US boycotted the 1936 games, it may have delayed the end of the eugenics movement or the start of the Jackie Robinson and civil rights era.

  8. The Chinese have never been “hulking”

    Wait and see. The ghost of Mao will cream his Mao suit.

  9. Why do people assume that the athletes give a rat’s ass about politics? If I were performing in the games, with the prospect of glimmering prizes and worldwide celebrity, I doubt I’d endanger it all by protesting the Commies.

  10. True. Most athletes aren’t known for their intellectual skills.

  11. I’m not a big sports fan. Not hugely interested in athletic competitions and such.

    But the thought of a nation’s government forbidding its athletes from competing in the Olympics, lest it lend some sort of legitimacy to our foes, makes me sick.

    If Applebaum is supporting things like Carter’s refusal to let Americans compete in the Moscow Olympics, she is nothing but a hateful, craven bitch.

  12. I remember before the Korean games James Michener (whatever his merits as a novelist may have been he was a typical dope on political/social matters) worrying in an essay that his fellow Americans may embarrass him at the games with patriotic chanting and the like. The great irony was no one behaved more jingoistic at those games than the South Korean athletes.

  13. If I were performing in the games, with the prospect of glimmering prizes and worldwide celebrity,

    Only a handful of athletes have a given chance of winning a given event. Most are there to compete and/or be tourists and/or have something to tell the grandchildren about and/or screw like crazy in the athlete’s village.

    Of those handful that CAN win, only one WILL win. Of those few that DO win, only a small percentage of them (e.g. Michael Phelps) can then turn that into money and/or fame. Most winners (e.g. Nelson Diebel) will win their event, be a media darling for 2-3 days, and then never be heard from again.

  14. But the thought of a nation’s government forbidding its athletes from competing in the Olympics, lest it lend some sort of legitimacy to our foes, makes me sick.

    I agree, and would not the natural Cosmotarian viewpoint of the Olympics be inclined to view them as something of a barbaric throwback to Nationalism?

  15. I hope there are mass protests at the same time. I would love it if a million Chinese were to march into the various stadiums and arenas on live television.

    Do I think this will happen? No. But one can have hope.

  16. sixstring,

    I would suppose that Jesse Owens opened a few minds domestically, too, and that had the US boycotted the 1936 games, it may have delayed the end of the eugenics movement

    The eugenics movement was already largely dead by the early 1930’s having been done in by the discovery of genes and a series of court case waged by the Southern Baptist Convention. In any case, blacks were off the radar when it came to eugenics.

    Owen’s victory proved a poke in the eye to Germany in the United States but in Europe it had little impact. Many in Europe thought black people to comprise a separate species of humans who were more animal like and possessed animal like athleticism. William Shirer related a story of one Nazi telling him that racing a black man was like racing a panther.

  17. What are the Chinese going to do about it?

    If kung fu movies are anything to go by, they will send the army one man at a time to attack the hero, who will use his superior monkey style to strike a blow for democratic values.

  18. Thanks Shannon. I had thought things were on the decline but the “end” was closer to mid-forties.

    The great irony was no one behaved more jingoistic at those games than the South Korean athletes.

    …with the possible exception of the boxing judges.

  19. But Hitler still got what he wanted out of the Games. With the help of American newspapers such as the New York Times, which opined that the Games put Germany “back in the family of nations again,” he convinced many Germans, and many foreigners, to accept Nazism as “normal.”

    And so I ask you – why the hell did we give up on the Germans? Those damn politicians in Washington chalked them up on our side and the wars ever since have been a national disgrace. Hell, look at history. The two best wars this country has fought were against the Jerries. Now I say, get the Krauts on the other side of the fence where they belong, and let’s get back to the kind of enemy worth killing and the kind of war this whole country can support.

  20. Good memory, sixstring.

  21. If kung fu movies are anything to go by, they will send the army one man at a time to attack the hero, who will use his superior monkey style to strike a blow for democratic values.

    You forgot that each attacker at a time will yell scream/yell just as he starts his attack…to let the hero know he is coming in case, you know, the hero had his back turned or something.

  22. It’s true that most athletes dont care. But I hope at least one gold medalist says something about China’s human rights record. Preferably on the podium.

  23. I agree, and would not the natural Cosmotarian viewpoint of the Olympics be inclined to view them as something of a barbaric throwback to Nationalism?

    I don’t know about barbaric, but the whole thing is wrapped in Jingoism, with the audience expected to root for their heroes against a field of foreign villains and the notion that an athlete wins a medal for his country, rather than himself.

  24. But the thought of a nation’s government forbidding its athletes from competing in the Olympics, lest it lend some sort of legitimacy to our foes, makes me sick

    What if the government told athletes they were free to go to China on their own dime but they can’t claim to represent the US, use the USA logo or fly the flag? Why can’t the US have the same rights as a corporation? Granted this is purely hypothetical, there is absolutely no chance this will happen. We will kow-tow to the Chinese, and we will smile while we do it.

    I’m also surprised to see rage here about the 1980 boycott. I didn’t think Reason, of all places, had so many pro-USSR sympathizers. The 1980 boycott was one of the bright spots of the Carter presidency. For one thing it embarrassed the Soviets deeply, far more deeply than most people realize, and really did begin to delegitimize the whole Afghan venture in the eyes of many Soviet citizens – or at the very least got them to think about it. Second, it embarrassed the IOC, an aging collection of fascists almost as obnoxious as the Politburo.

  25. Anne Applebaum is a fatuous idiot. The fact that she was awarded a Pulitzer only cheapens the Pulitzer, rather than vindicates Applebaum.

    Anne (in)famously stated “there is no air(*) on Mars” in a long, techno-illiterate screed against manned spaceflight. Not just against government funded manned spaceflight, but against the whole concept.

    (*) Technically, she was right, since only Earth has “air.” Mars has a significant atmosphere which although unbreathable would make colonization there easier than Earth’s Moon, but the rest of her article made it clear that she seriously didn’t (or couldn’t) understand, the difference between “air” and “atmosphere.”

  26. It’s a pretty big stretch to equate thinking that the 1980 boycott was a meaningless gesture that served only the cheat the athletes out of what they’d been training their whole lives for with being pro-Soviet.

  27. Just to play devil’s advocate, one reason not to make a statement at the games is the fear of retributive protests when we host the Games again. Plenty of European countries have resisted the urge to complain about their pet gripes (like the US’s death penalty or Mumia Abu Jamal) while they collected medals in sports that America doesn’t care about. In the post-Bush era, I can see plenty of athletes bringing up Abu Grahib or global warming. Who wants that?

    I’m not comparing the US record on human rights to China, but we know lots of other countries like to pretend that there is some equivalency.

  28. I’m also surprised to see rage here about the 1980 boycott. I didn’t think Reason, of all places, had so many pro-USSR sympathizers.

    You’re right, because I think athletes should be able to compete anywhere in the world, I’m quite obviously a Communist sympathizer.

  29. I think the American delegation should enter the opening ceremonies in a tank.

  30. “They didn’t mind about the business sanctions,” a South African friend once told me, “but they minded — they really, really minded — about the cricket.”

    Aussie industrialist Kerry Packer’s rebel cricket tours of international superstars gave the South Africans top level cricket, and it also gave the apartheid government some propaganda. “See? The entire world isn’t against us.”

    I don’t agree that the US should force its athletes to stay home, but a voluntary boycott would be a good thing to see. Failing that, someone whipping out a “Free Tibet” or a picture of Tienanmen tanks would be a nice gesture.

  31. It’s true. At the first Olympics, old King Iphitos was just trying to get out of fighting some Spartans.

    After that, the whole things was just a scam to generate tourism revenue for Elis and Pisa.

    Anyways, ever since Phidias was commissioned to make that statue, the whole thing is too commercial.

  32. Abdul,

    I say let ’em. To the extent they have a good point it certainly won’t hurt to hear them out. And it’s worth the price of listening to someone rave about Mumia if it means embarrassing China over Tibet etc.

  33. Speaking of Carter and the Moscow Olympics, did he actually have to take any illegal steps like confiscating passports, or did he just proclaim a boycott, and the atheletes complied?

    -jcr

  34. In Soviet Russia, Olympics boycotts you!

  35. In the post-Bush era, I can see plenty of athletes bringing up Abu Grahib or global warming. Who wants that?

    I do! I do!

  36. In the post-Bush era, I can see plenty of athletes bringing up Abu Grahib or global warming. Who wants that?

    I do! I do!

    I still say it would be incredibly disrespectful to President Chelsea.

  37. But the thought of a nation’s government forbidding its athletes from competing in the Olympics, lest it lend some sort of legitimacy to our foes, makes me sick.

    Agreed. Even though he was a raving lunatic asshole, Bobby Fischer playing chess in Yugoslavia is not the sort of thing that a government of adults should be worried about.

    I’ll watch some track and field events, maybe some boxing. That’s about it. The women’s floor exercises and equestrian events don’t really get my neanderthal juices flowing.

  38. You’re right, because I think athletes should be able to compete anywhere in the world, I’m quite obviously a Communist sympathizer.

    No, you’re just a fellow traveler, what people in the KGB called “useful idiots”. Someone who believes that a fatuous right to play in a game is unbreakable even when those games are directly in the service of propaganda for a totalitarian state. But I don’t really disagree with you that individual athletes should have been allowed to go the USSR (or Nazi Germany) on their own, but the USA certainly had and should have the right to refuse its athletes permission to fly US colors at a propaganda event staged by an enemy of the US. China is not an enemy of the US so the argument for a boycott is certainly a lot weaker than it was in 1980.

  39. I remember the Roy Jones, Jr. fight. He got totally robbed.

    I hope the rest of China rises in revolution during the Olympics. Or before then. Or after.

    Incidentally, I’d like to see Taiwan freed from Chinese oppression, too.

  40. Why can’t the US have the same rights as a corporation?

    Hurumphh . . .

    Reminds me of what one of the anti-Communist Czech dissidents once wrote in the 80’s. In essence, ‘If this factory belongs to the people, than why can I not take what I produce here home with me, after all, according to the authorities, it belongs to me.’

    Your idea would turn the US into a FooBoo- BooBoo, For the Bureaucrats, By the Bureaucrats, to a greater extent than it already has become that.

  41. I remember the Roy Jones, Jr. fight. He got totally robbed.

    The match he and Felix Trinidad put together a few months ago was one of the most satisfying matches I have seen in ages. Two athletes, slightly passed there prime but with far greater skill than anyone else in their class.

  42. No doubt, Jones was an excellent boxer in his day.

  43. He is of course slower now, but in one extent, he is better — he can actually take a punch now (in the 90’s it wasn’t necessary for him ’cause no one could seriously hit him).

  44. The women’s floor exercises and equestrian events don’t really get my neanderthal juices flowing.

    J sub D, you’ve got to stop setting up the porno jokes.

  45. I love Anne Applebaum.

  46. No, you’re just a fellow traveler, what people in the KGB called “useful idiots”.

    You’re awesome.

    Please, post some more.

  47. the IOC, an aging collection of fascists almost as obnoxious as the Politburo.

    *bangs shoe on table*

    hear, hear!

    Individualism and independent thought (amongst athletes) are not attributes greatly prized by the IOC.

  48. “Why do people assume that the athletes give a rat’s ass about politics? If I were performing in the games, with the prospect of glimmering prizes and worldwide celebrity, I doubt I’d endanger it all by protesting the Commies.”

    That is so true.

    I coached Olympic women gymnasts during the 1980 boycott. The only remotely political thing I can recall from an athlete was a shirt that read “Let the Russians Play with themselves” with the three Olympic rings altered to look like two testicles and a vaguely erect penis.

  49. I meant 5 Olympic rings, not 3.

  50. vanya will feel differently someday when she has Chinese children.

  51. pssst… DAR… “vanya” means “johnny” in Russian.

  52. Dude, Vanya is a dude’s name, isn’t it?

  53. Gotta be faster than that, PL…

  54. Makes no difference.

    Vanya will feel differently someday after the sex change operation when she has Chinese children.

    Better?

  55. J sub D, you’ve got to stop setting up the porno jokes.

    I set ’em up, leaving it for others to knock ’em down.

  56. J sub D – Had I any sense of humor, that’s what I’d have done.

    DAR – Thank you. My sense of narrative closure is now fulfilled.

  57. The problems for athletes who protest will not come from the Chinese, but from the IOC itself. They risk being sent home or, worse for some, stripped of their medals for “politicizing” the Games. THAT is why the athletes will remain silent. All well and good to sympathize with the Chinese people, or Tibet, but risk my endorsement $$$? Hell No !!!

  58. DAR – Thank you. My sense of narrative closure is now fulfilled.

    You say that now, but you’ll feel differently someday when you’ve had Vanya’s children.

  59. Remember the “Black Power” salute in Mexico City on the medal stand? I forget their names, but that was audaciously cool, though the cause they were promoting sucked.

    Why can’t someone stick a Tibetan flag into his clothing and hold it up on the medal stand? That would be loads of fun!!

  60. Does anyone actually still watch the Olympics?

  61. To the Chinese, the Olympics isn’t a vindication of Communism or Communist Party rule so much as an emblem of national pride. The reason Communism persists in China is because, in the years since Mao’s takeover, China went from being a weak nation carved up by Western and Japanese power to an economic and diplomatic rising force. All a boycott will accomplish is cause China to dig in its heels…if Applebaum thinks positive outcomes will result, she really has no idea what she’s talking about.

  62. I hope some athlete, hopefully more than one, make some sort of political statement that throughly embarasses the Chinese government. A boycott is overkill. A “fuck you”-type jesture on world wide television is perfect.

  63. kinnath | March 26, 2008, 3:48pm | #
    The Chinese have never been “hulking”. You need East Germans for that.

    FAPFAPFAP

  64. the USA certainly had and should have the right to refuse its athletes permission to fly US colors

    I’m curious as to where this “right” comes from.

  65. Matt Schiavenza —

    Nationalism applies to the half of China’s area which is inhabited by the Han. Tibet, Turkestan, and Inner Mongolia are no more Chinese than Libya is Italian. If the Han choose to be obstreperous in their imperialism, that is their choice, but non-Han should still insist on correctly identifying it as imperialism.

  66. The Olympics — bah. The World Cup is where it’s at (as the rest of the world agrees). And not least because FIFA completely bars government involvement in the thing.

  67. The jingoism kills any interest I might have in the Olympics. Not to mention the excessive TV coverage of womens’ gymnastics in the summer version and figure skating the winter version. Enough with the underfed pixies and corrupt judging, already.

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