Saturday, March 8, 2008

Protest at the Olympics

I am not great fan of the whole institution of the Olympics, but it took the Dalai Lama to remind me that even this coin may have a positive side. That reminder emerged as a result of his response to accusations that he was trying to "sabotage" the summer games in protest against current conditions in Tibet. Here is the report that Al Jazeera English prepared from their wire services:

The Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, has supported China's right to host the Olympics despite Beijing accusing him of trying to sabotage the summer Games.

His statement on Saturday came after media reports on Friday said Zhang Qingli, China's top official in Tibet, had accused the Dalai Lama of trying to "sabotage this important event and spread rumours".

A statement issued by his government-in-exile from Dharamshala in northern India, said "it is common knowledge that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has consistently supported the right of China to host the 2008 Olympic Games".

However, it is the further elaboration of His Holiness' response that makes this story interesting:

Referring to questions about whether he backed calls by Tibet support groups for a Games boycott, the Dalai Lama said he had already stated "that it was too radical".

However, the Dalai Lama said Tibet support groups "could remind the international community, including the Chinese people, about the repression and urgency of the situation in Tibet".

The Dalai Lama is frustrated by China's refusal to discuss "cultural" autonomy for Tibet, but sees a window to sway public opinion ahead of the Olympics in August, analysts say.

His statement came a day after Chinese authorities warned preparations had been made to stop campaigners opposed to China's rule of Tibet from protesting in the Himalayan region before and during the Olympics.

This reminded me that it is sometimes the athletes themselves who end up having the greatest impact on public opinion. The most-told tale in this regard is probably that of the impact of Jesse Owens' performance at the 1936 Summer Olympics on Nazi ideology, which was all the stronger since not only were the games held in Berlin but they were used by the Nazis as a major propaganda tool. My personal memory, however, was influenced far more strongly by the Power to the People salute given by African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the medal-awarding ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos recognized that, for all the efforts of their own country to silence the voice of the Black Power movement, that little staircase-pyramid for the three medal-winners was about as bully a pulpit as they could get; and, having achieved that pulpit, they then recognized that this one gesture would speak louder than any oratory.

For better or worse, Björk may have given us a taste of what could happen this summer in China. Today the New York Times provided a brief action-reaction account of her own effort to protest while performing in China:

China will tighten its restrictions on foreign performers following an appearance last Sunday in Shanghai by the Icelandic singer Bjork, who shouted “Tibet, Tibet” after performing her song “Declare Independence.” China’s Ministry of Culture responded to Bjork’s action on Friday by posting a statement on its Web site, saying that she “broke Chinese law and hurt Chinese people’s feelings,” The Associated Press reported.

This may have let a genie out of the bottle in the area of Olympic planning. Are Olympic athletes "foreign performers?" If so, what "restrictions" will be imposed on them; and what role will the International Olympics Committee play in the enforcement of those restrictions? Personally, I have more sympathy for Smith and Carlos than for Björk; but my criteria are primarily stylistic. I figure that, if the New York Philharmonic could pull off a propaganda coup in North Korea without saying a word, then the Olympic athletes should be just as expressive in such matters through the "instruments" of their own bodies. Perhaps the summer of 2008 will effect just the right kind of Hegelian synthesis of the respective summers of 1936 and 1968!

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