Thursday, August 7, 2008

Chutzpah Redux

Last week I chose to give the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the benefit of the doubt for being victimized over the question of China's intention to reserve the right to block access to certain Internet sites. Under the naive assumption that we can learn from even the most unpleasant experiences, I have decided that this week the IOC can take sole possession of the Chutzpah of the Week award when the reputations of their own medal-winning athletes are at stake. By way of support, let me reproduce the entirety of Dave Zirin's latest post to The Notion on the Web site for The Nation:

Joey Cheek is someone who actually believes in the Olympic ideal, the quaint notion that sports could be used as a force for good, to raise awareness, understanding and even bring people closer together. The 2006 speed skating gold medalist will now not get the chance to test his theories. Cheek, the president of Team Darfur, a coalition of as many as 200 athletes aimed at raising awareness about the suffering in the Sudanese region, had his visa revoked the evening before he was to fly to Beijing.

"I didn't see it coming," Cheek said. "I figured once they gave me a visa, I wouldn't imagine they wouldn't allow me to come in later. That was a big shock. I wasn't expecting to get a call the evening before I was leaving for Beijing."

Cheek wasn't alone. Team Darfur member Kendra Zanotto, a US bronze medalist in synchronized swimming at the Athens Games in 2004, was also denied entry even though she was attending in an official capacity, as a reporter for the Olympic News Service.

The fact that China acted so abruptly, stating that they were "not required to give a reason" for these actions is no surprise. The craven response by the International and US Olympic Committee is actually bracing. No support for their own medalists when the stakes are having a games "without controversy." The irony is that Cheek and Team Darfur are a moderate force in this protest drama. They never called for an Olympic boycott and always saw the games as a place to advance dialogue more than struggle. China and the IOC might pay a price for denying this kind of presence. Already Western protesters have broken onto fields of play to unfurl Tibetan flags. This kind of high profile disruption infuriates China and the IOC. But it is also effectively harmless for China's rulers who have been adept at stoking nationalism when "western" protesters raise concerns. More problematic has been the efforts of two Beijing women Zhang Wei and Ma Xiulan--two of the 1.5 million people displaced to make way for the games. They have been public figures speaking out about the human cost of the $40 billion games. Late Wednesday, they were taken from their homes by police, trying to clamp down on dissent. We will see if this kind of local action--and reaction --causes a greater headache for China than anything said or done by Joey Cheek.

Team Darfur is doing neither more nor less than invoking the spirit of the Olympic Games to "advance dialogue," as Zirin put it; and the IOC has decided to assign that spirit a back seat behind China's determination for the Games to proceed "without controversy," thus acting in a manner that fully merits Zirin's invocation of the adjective "craven."

Those of us with a sense of history remember that in 1968 Australian Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to show his support for Tommie Smith and John Carlos, when they raised their fists in a "Black Power salute" during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" when the medals for the 200-meter race were awarded in Mexico City. This year the question will be one of who chooses to show solidarity with those who seek little more than quiet and reasoned dialogue in the face of the repressive acts of a government desperate not to lose face in the eyes of the rest of the world (particularly the Western countries). Since the IOC has now made clear it choice with respect to such dialogue, it seems only fair that they should take full responsibility for the Chutzpah of the Week award.

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