This summer the Olympics will be held in Beijing, a decision fraught with controversy since it was announced back in 2001. China’s human-rights record is abysmal—from forced abortions, to persecuting Christians and other people of faith, to clamping down on free speech, to supporting a government that has committed genocide in Darfur.
The Olympic committee, back in 2001, said choosing Beijing would be a catalyst for change in China. It “may help to liberalize a country,” said the committee’s vice president, Thomas Bach of Germany. But that will not happen when, as the London Daily Mail puts it, you “kow tow” to the host country, and you tell athletes to keep quiet—which is exactly what is happening.
To comply with the international Olympic Charter, Britain’s Olympic athletes are being forced to sign contracts promising they will not say anything about China’s human-rights abuses. If they violate the contract, athletes will find themselves on a plane headed home. The contract could mean that an athlete “who witnesses someone being mistreated on the way to a stadium” could not talk to colleagues about it. And they would have to “exercise self-censorship” on blogs and e-mails.
And while U.S. athletes may speak freely—they cannot do so at any official Olympic venue or press conference. Come on.Some have said this year’s gagging of athletes is reminiscent of the Nazi salute British competitors gave at a soccer match in Berlin in 1938. “Imposing compulsory vows of silence is an affront to our athletes, and in China it will be viewed as acquiescence,” said human-rights advocate Lord David Alton. He noted that “each year 8,000 executions take place in China, political and religious opinion is repressed, journalists jailed and the internet and overseas broadcasts heavily censored.” Alton was dead-on when he said, “For our athletes to be told that they may not make any comment makes a mockery of our own country’s belief in free speech.”
Last August, International Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge said, “We stand for human rights, we stand for strict social values, but we are only a sports organization.” Well, which is it? Are the Olympics a force that will “help liberalize a country” as Bach said earlier, or “only a sports organization”?
Steven Spielberg recognized this and withdrew from his role as an artistic adviser to the Games’ opening and closing ceremonies. According to the Wall Street Journal, Spielberg cited “China’s connection to the government in Sudan and the controversy over Darfur.” Good for Spielberg.
“About the only justification for participating in the Beijing Games is that it offers an opportunity to encourage more awareness about human rights,” says Lord Alton.
The Games will go on. But to paraphrase Alton, the only justification for watching them will be for American viewers to raise the human-rights issue in letters-to-the-editor, speaking with lawmakers and Olympic sponsors, and shining a spotlight on Chinese repression.
Even if our athletes can not speak out—and I bet some will—we can. And we must.