From Olympia to Impasse

PARIS – “Do not mix sports and politics!” That defiant cry from China’s rulers to the threat of a boycott of this summer’s Beijing Olympic Games does not stand the test of reality. Sport and politics have always been closely linked.

Obvious examples abound. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were dominated as much by Nazi propaganda as by the athletic events. During the Cold War, “ping pong diplomacy” helped revive official relations between China and the United States. In 1990, Germany fielded a single Olympic team before the country reunified.

To claim that politics and sports can be any more separated in today’s media age than they were in the past is especially naïve. The Olympics were awarded to Beijing for a mixture of economic and political reasons, and China wanted the Games for the same reasons. The current tension between China and (mostly) Western public opinion on the eve of the Beijing Olympics is the result of incompetence, hypocrisy, and legitimate but potentially counterproductive indignation.

China’s incompetence in its treatment of the crisis in Tibet should come as no surprise. The Chinese regime is, quite simply, a victim of its inability to reform itself. China saw in the Olympics a symbolic opportunity to consolidate and celebrate its new status in the world. Caught by surprise in Tibet, and by the virulence and popularity of what they described as “anti-Chinese” sentiments, China’s rulers have resorted to the traditional tools of authoritarian regimes, turning their citizens’ deep nationalism and sense of humiliation against Western critics.