Torch as lightning rod

Olympic attention is magnet for protests

April 09, 2008|By Joe Burris | Joe Burris,Sun reporter

When Duncan Mackay, a journalist and co-author of a coming book on China's Olympic bid, ran with the Olympic torch through London on Sunday, scores of demonstrators converged on him, shouting their conflicting views about China's hosting of the Summer Games.

"It was like running between two gangs, really," said Mackay, referring to the people protesting Chinese treatment of Tibet and other human rights abuses and their detractors, tempers flaring like the torch.

"One of my friends had children there between the ages of 7 and 13, and for them it was quite frightening."

The protests that have interrupted the torch relay in Europe are expected to reignite today in San Francisco, where the torch is scheduled to make its only North American stop.

Already protesters in San Francisco have scaled the Golden Gate Bridge and unfurled a large banner to draw attention to Chinese abuses in Tibet. San Francisco officials said yesterday that one torchbearer has pulled out, fearing possible protests.

This week, the controversy spilled into the U.S. presidential race, as Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton called for President Bush to boycott the opening ceremonies next August in Beijing.

The modern Olympics have frequently been used as political fodder. The torch relay was popularized in 1936 by the Germans who fashioned the games they were hosting that year as a showcase for Nazism.

Subsequent games were defined, interrupted and terrorized by people or groups using the quadrennial event as an international stage - from the killings of Israeli athletes by Palestinian kidnappers in 1972 to the U.S. and Soviets boycotting the games each other hosted in the 1980s.

Political intrusions were smaller during the past two decades. The past week's protests, however, portend that fears about widespread condemnation of the Chinese Games could become a major issue for organizers and athletes as preparation continues.

Talk hasn't progressed to the point of serious calls for nations or athletes to boycott the games. But Clinton's suggestion that Bush skip the opening ceremony and reports that the torch relay might have to be curtailed were the most serious indications to date that protests about China's treatment of human rights will cloud the event, fulfilling concerns raised when China's bid was first considered. China was awarded the Games in 2001.

"It's truly unfortunate that the torch has become a lightning rod for protests about China," said Karen Christensen, publisher and co-editor of a yet-to-be published book, China Gold: China's Quest for Global Power and Olympic Glory.

Other observers were disturbed by the controversy's entrance into the presidential race, recalling lingering resentment over the U.S. sparring with the Soviet Union over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the Olympics a generation ago.

John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor whose research includes the Olympics and politics, said Clinton's call was an "opportunistic" move aimed at her rival for the nomination. Sen. Barack Obama said last week that he was "hesitant to make the Olympics a site of political protest."

Two-time Olympic medalist Frank Shorter, who won gold in the marathon at the 1972 Munich games that were interrupted by the killings of the Israelis, said yesterday that he fervently hopes the U.S. won't repeat its 1980 boycott experience.

"The opening ceremony is the beginning of the celebration, so I just don't think depriving every elite athlete who is able to go is appropriate," Shorter said. "In essence, you're asking for support of your cause through the sacrifice of athletes whether they want to or not. I think that's wrong."

Now an attorney, Shorter said President Jimmy Carter miscalculated in 1980 when he listened to advisers who predicted that Great Britain would follow the U.S. lead and join dozens of others countries in boycotting the Moscow Olympiad that summer. While the British government backed Carter's boycott, that nation's Olympic association voted to participate.

Robert K. Barney, founding director of the Ontario-based International Centre for Olympic Studies, said he was concerned about the protests, but he dismissed any thought that such sentiments would swell to keep nations from participating.

"Boycotts have become passe since ... 1980 and 1984, because [former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch] said, `Look, we might envision depriving countries' rights to participate in future Olympics,'" Barney said.

"And one of the things that came out of the two boycotts that's led to them not occurring again is that they don't bring about the results that people desire from them. The Soviet Union stayed in Afghanistan, and it was the athletes who didn't attend the games who suffered the most."

Short of national boycotts, protests by individuals - spectators or athletes - could become a more serious factor for these games.

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