On The Road To Madalay

Posted: Jul 18, 2001 12:00 AM
From this quarter there was no call made on the Bush administration to heave into the Olympic Games question, seeking to obstruct the selection of Peking for the 2008 site. The problem for the United States was now as the problem had been for nine years on another theater: Do we take official action to protest China's violation of human rights -- or do we take unofficial action?

Novitiates should remind themselves that we went through exactly the same question when the Soviet Union applied for the role as host for 1980. In the late '70s, we heard the identical arguments we hear today, and the naysayers were as persuasive as they were in the last few months against Peking. Most frequently, back then, the Olympics of 1936 were brought up. That was the year in which Adolf Hitler strutted his stuff in Berlin and handed Leni Riefenstahl the material for the great movie drama featuring German athleticism and, however indirectly, racial purity.

Outstanding among the critics of Olympics-in-Moscow was Sir Arnold Lunn, the British mountaineer, essayist, historian and athlete (he invented the slalom). His arguments have not grown old, and are eloquently put forward today by, e.g., the editors of The Weekly Standard. They are that every means by which nations can objectify their displeasure with human-rights abuses should be taken. You rule out war against a country that denies human rights, especially if that country has nuclear weapons.

Having done that, apply every other pressure you can think of. And denying sponsorship of the Olympic Games is one such. Hitler lusted for them, so did Brezhnev, so does Jiang Zemin. Inasmuch as the United States was not a member of the committee that made the decision, all we could have done was use our (considerable, but not irresistible) influence. Would we have lightened the burden of those in China who suffer?

Probably not, because saying no on the Olympic question wasn't something that gave to Peking a probationary period in which to show that it was getting a lesson. When in 1993 President Clinton had to rule, by congressional notice, that human rights in China were better ... worse ... unchanged ... we got into the habit of closing our eyes to syllogistic formulations. Yes, human rights were bad; yes, we have the alternative to alter our trade policies ... Therefore? Therefore we did nothing.

We have got ourselves a little consolation prize. In anticipation of Peking's selection by the Olympic committee, we tell ourselves that Peking has to be careful not to risk its victory by an act of aggression similar to that of Moscow. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, President Carter announced a boycott of the Olympics.

That boycott worked in part, but was not popular with the American people. What pre-empted public concern during the pre-Olympic months of 1980 wasn't the plight of the Afghans facing an aggressive Soviet army. It was the plight of a few hundred 20-year-olds who had labored four years to develop prowess in their sports. In most cases, they would not live to fight another day. It was then or never that they'd run the half-mile course. The competitive sportsman's license to play is shortlived.

A lesson for the United States in 2008: If Peking decides, six months before the games, to act as Moscow did -- invade a country -- we had better prepare to resist with other weapons than the boycott of the Olympic Games. The idea that Peking, if it is bent on military aggression against Taiwan, would be deterred from doing so for fear of an Olympic boycott is inherently preposterous. Whatever remaining influence Karl Marx has on China's leaders, probably the neo-Marxists still concur that great historical moments are unmoved by the site of the Olympic Games.