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Beijing not alone when it comes to Olympic disputes

Controversy – from Black Power salutes to boycotts – is often what's remembered.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 2008

Heated history: The Olympic Games have been fraught with politics.The lighting of Berlin's 1936 Olympic flame was attended by hundreds of Hitler youth, a celebration of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.


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Some Olympiads are born controversial, some achieve controversy, and some have controversy thrust upon them.

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Though few editions of the modern Olympic Games have been as bitterly contested as the Beijing summer Games that open in August, these are scarcely the only ones to have sparked dispute. Indeed, those disputes – not sporting achievements – are often what make Olympic Games memorable.

"People will remember a really great athletic moment," says historian David Wallechinsky. "But, in general, it is the controversies that stick out."

A case in point: Sports fans still remember Bob Beamon's massive long jump in Mexico City in 1968, setting an Olympic record that has yet to be beaten. The rest remember the Mexico Olympics for the Black Power salute that US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave from the podium.

Some observers have likened the controversy surrounding the Beijing Games, fanned by pro-Tibet and human rights activists, to the international misgivings about the Berlin Olympics in 1936, hosted by Adolf Hitler.

In both cases, "you have persecution going on before the Games and other countries nervous about bringing teams to compete," says Kevin Wamsley, head of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.

Like the Nazis, the ruling Chinese Communist Party clearly hopes that successful Games will reflect well not just on China as a country, but on its political system itself.

Similarities stop there, however, says Susan Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, currently in Beijing studying Chinese preparations for the Olympics. In the Olympic education campaign that the authorities have been running from primary school level to university, she says, "the Communist party is almost never mentioned, and nor is socialism."

At the same time, she and others point out, China is not the militaristic power bent on the physical elimination of an entire race and marching toward world war that Germany was when it welcomed the world's athletes in 1936.

A parallel that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would prefer to draw is with the Seoul Olympics, where the South Korean military dictatorship allowed democratic elections shortly before the 1988 Games.

When China's bid for the Games was accepted in 2001, the then-executive director of the IOC, François Carrard, said, "Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, we close the door and say no. The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes."