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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
Some officials have acknowledged as much. "It is not only an international sports event, but also a very important political mission," stated a 2006 opinion article in the People's Daily. "It is not only an Olympic feast for the Chinese people, it can also arouse Chinese patriotism."
An awareness of how much the Games mean to China, and a fear of upsetting the authorities, appear to have been behind a plan by the British Olympic Association, revealed last weekend, to make British athletes sign a contract pledging not to comment on "politically sensitive issues" in Beijing.
In the wake of an uproar, the BOA says it will reword the contract to conform to the Olympic charter, which says: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." It does not forbid athletes from expressing opinions elsewhere.
Other groups are less worried about riling the Chinese. "If the Games show China emerging as a world power, it's fair to raise questions about their complicity in Darfur," says Allyn Brooks-LaSure, spokesman for the Save Darfur Coalition. He adds that "As soon as we started talking about the Olympic Games, there was at least a response from the Chinese. It is clear they are hearing what we are saying."
Campaigners on other issues, such as Tibetan rights, human rights abuses, and religious persecution, are gearing up to use the Olympics as a stick with which to beat Beijing, but the government issued them a stern warning two weeks ago.
"Those who always look at China through dark glasses have produced a sort of baffling excitement," an editorial in the People's Daily declared. Activists who say that "they can exert enough pressure to force China into a position where it cannot help but act according to their wishes … have clearly miscalculated."
Others are not so sure. International pressure "might make some difference" says Mr. Rittenberg. "Those in the leadership who are sensitive to these issues feel strengthened."
Still, he says, "the net result is more negative than positive," given how proud most ordinary Chinese are that their country is hosting the Games. "Indignation at Spielberg is going to be almost universal.
"If the games are substantially damaged" by any snowball effect from Spielberg's resignation, Rittenberg warns, "that is going to cause immense resentment among ordinary Chinese at what they see as unjust foreign interference."
For Darfur advocates, the ball is in China's court. "We will continue pushing till there's a response from China that makes a difference" says Mr. Brooks-LaSure. "The Chinese are going to see and hear a crescendo of activism as the games get closer."
"Beijing is going to have to start thinking how to react well and intelligently" to such pressure, says Zweig. "They are going to be confronting this kind of thing all the time."