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Spielberg helps spoil China's hope for a politics-free Olympics

The Hollywood director resigned this week as artistic adviser to the Beijing games to protest China's Darfur policy.

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Officials say they are ready to deal with political opponents. "We have heard voices from all sides," said Jiang Xiaoyu, vice president of the Beijing Olympic Games Organizing Committee (BOCOG) last year. "[There] will be more and more of these kinds of voices and maybe more resonant. We are mentally prepared."

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But it took the Foreign Ministry two days to respond to Spielberg's bombshell, suggesting a low level of readiness.

"The government was intellectually aware" of the likelihood of political problems surrounding the games, says Sidney Rittenberg, a China expert who knows the country's top leaders personally. "But I don't think they had real flesh-and-blood understanding of it. The gathering storm will come as a bit of a shock."

Politics have intruded on many past Games, starting in 1906, when an Irish medal winner climbed the flagpole to tear down the British flag that had been raised in his honor, in the days before Irish independence.

The 1936 games in Nazi-ruled Berlin are often seen as the nadir of attempts by the host nation to use the festivities for political gain. African nations boycotted the 1976 Games, the US and some of its allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union and its satellites boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles in revenge.

For nearly 25 years, however, in Seoul, South Korea; Barcelona, Spain; Atlanta, Sydney, Australia; and Athens; the Olympics have been mostly free of political trouble. "It is possible to proceed without controversy," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "Nobody was mad at the Greeks. They haven't offended anybody."

Beijing, however, is making its Games a powerful symbol of China's emergence as a world power, "and that, by its very nature, is political," says Zweig.

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