How the sporting arena has turned into a political battlefield

IT'S billed as the biggest international sports festival. On the track, that statement about Olympics is indisputable. Off the field, it is anything but sports and smacks of nothing but politics — including the debate leading up to the 2001 decision to award the 2008 Games to Beijing, which is likely to continue even after the flame is extinguished.

By Dr. N. Janardhan (Gulf Angle)

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Published: Thu 14 Aug 2008, 10:37 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Under the Olympic charter, one of the objectives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is to oppose any political abuse of the event. However, the Olympics originated in politics — aimed at bringing together the competing city-states of Ancient Greece.

That trend has rarely been resisted — the Berlin edition in 1936 was about showcasing "Aryan supremacy" and Hitler's National Socialist government, which followed the script until Jessie Owens altered it; the Cold War and Helsinki Games began in 1952; and the Arab-Israeli conflict spilt into Munich in 1972.

The Moscow Olympics in 1980, the first in a communist country, was intended to underscore the achievements of a great athletic and political superpower. However, over 60 countries, led by the United States, stayed away in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, which resulted in a counter-boycott of several others in the 1984 edition at Los Angeles.

And, the 1988 Seoul Olympics reshaped South Korea's political history when public anticipation of the event encouraged street protests, which ultimately ushered in democracy.

In 1993, with the Tiananmen Square massacre still fresh in most people's minds, the IOC overlooked Beijing, choosing Sydney for the 2000 Olympics instead. The choice in 2001 was to side either with those who claimed the Games would help China reform or those who thought it would simply make the government more radical (there was also an economic consideration — pressure from the Games biggest sponsor NBC, the US television network, which was desperate for the event in a telecast time-friendly zone such as Toronto or Paris).

The team trying to bring the XXIX Olympics to Beijing spent time trying to convince anyone listening in Moscow that being the host could help the cause of human rights in China, because that was the issue which was most likely to drive a wedge. There were also the Tibet and Xinjiang separatist movements, with the protesters for a free Tibet unfurling in Moscow a large banner featuring bullet holes in the place of the five Olympic rings!

At this stage, politics took the front seat.

French President Jacques Chirac, on a state visit to Moscow, asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if he could persuade his country's IOC members to vote for Paris. But, Paris and Toronto made major public relations gaffes that acquired political colouring.

The Paris bid chief was under investigation for alleged tax evasion and Toronto's mayor was forced to apologise after joking that he was reluctant to attend an Olympic meeting in Africa because "I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me."

This was also the first time a summer games host was picked under new rules adopted in the wake of the Salt Lake City winter games scandal when the organisers were accused of giving bribes to IOC members.

Politics again clouded the vote because the IOC was due to elect a new president to replace Juan Antonio Samaranch. With Belgian Jacques Rogge, South Korean Kim Un-yong and Canadian Dick Pound being the favourites to replace him, the assumption was that preference for Beijing, Toronto or Paris would be prejudicial to the presidential candidate. Thus it was unlikely, for example, that the IOC would vote to award the extravaganza to Beijing and then elect an Asian president. Aware of this, backers of Kim had been lobbying members to vote for Toronto to enhance his own chances.

Samaranch, however, was a keen supporter of China's bid and as his last presidential act, he succeeded in guiding the IOC to choose Beijing.

China, itself, was obsessively keen to be awarded the games in order to showcase its credentials on the world stage. The vote for Beijing, two weeks after the Communist party's 80th anniversary, was seen as a symbol of good fortune.

After winning its bid, Beijing released an "action plan" that pledged positive developments on environment and governance issues. And, its Olympics strategy committed "to be open in every aspect to the rest of the country and the whole world."

Yet, controversy dogged China all along. Critics continue to attack the country's record on several fronts, including human rights, environment, and its relations with Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe as well. Ahead of the Olympic torch relay, the Chinese crackdown on Tibetans brought international condemnation and boycott calls.

A fortnight before the start of the Beijing Olympics, Chinese President Hu Jintao said, "We believe that politicising the Olympics does not favour resolving (human rights and restrictions on media coverage) issues and also violates the Olympic spirit...While constantly deepening economic reform and achieving sound and fast economic and social development, we will continue to pursue comprehensive reforms, including reforms of the political system."

The opening date of the Beijing Olympics — 08-08-08 — was auspicious in Chinese numerology. The London Games in 2012 may be a good time to assess if it was indeed good — politically — for China.

Dr N. Janardhan, a UAE-based political analyst specialising on Gulf-Asia affairs, can be contacted at

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