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.
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