Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Olympic flame, boycotts, and the art of propaganda

Hillary Clinton is calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies in the upcoming Olympics. China's human rights record is pathetic, and its Tibet and Darfur policies are abhorrent, but sitting out the opening ceremonies is the wrong way to get attention. Olympic boycotts have never worked. Plus, highlighting the games on the presidential campaign trail gives the games more prestige than they deserve. First, the United States is in the middle of a disastrous war and looming recession. Second, while the Olympics might seem like a big deal to people over forty, their credibility has been eroded by bribery scandals, corruption, and steroids. The Olympics once symbolized something grand, but Frank Deford is dead-on when he describes them as "yesterday's party."

But let's imagine that the Olympics are not on the wane. Is a boycott even a smart strategy?

There is a grand tradition of governments using the Olympics for propaganda, and in every case I can remember, the simple symbolic act of an athlete, not a government, has ruined it for them. President Carter's boycotting of the Moscow Olympics had no impact on the Soviet Union, it simply destroyed the dreams of many American athletes. Not showing up never works. Athletes create lasting symbols, more so than bureaucrats and totalitarian states. One of the lasting images of the Civil Rights struggle was Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics. In the last couple weeks, people have brought attention--and shame--to China through torch relay protests; this essentially grass-roots movement has drawn the world's attention to human rights abuses. That is good. But when it comes to the actual Olympics--spectators watching throughout the world--the United States needs to participate, and even join in the opening ceremonies. (Perhaps, the athletes could walk into the stadium heads down...)

What do we remember of Hitler's Olympic games, the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin? Hitler was using the games to promote his ideology, and Joseph Goebbels developed the torch relay as a cynical way to show the world the new, daunting Germany. The world didn't boycott the games, and history would have been no different if we had. The United Press' coverage of the opening ceremonies highlighted how the U.S. athletes refused to dip the stars and stripes for Hitler. They were "weakly applauded," but the gesture made its symbolic mark. And there is the immortal image that people took away from the Berlin Olympics. The image? Jesse Owens' class, grace, beauty, and greatness in the face of tyranny.


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