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Olympic Historian Says Politics Impossible To Avoid At Games

Australian police keep Tibetan protesters and pro-Chinese separate during the Australian Olympic torch relay leg in Canberra.
Australian police keep Tibetan protesters and pro-Chinese separate during the Australian Olympic torch relay leg in Canberra.
Since the first modern Olympics were held in 1896, the Games have become as much about politics as they are about sport.

The 2008 Beijing Summer Games are no exception. China has prepared itself to host this year's Olympics by tightening its already strict control over its population, brutally quelling dissent, and making cosmetic changes to its restrictive laws -- all in an effort to present a friendlier face to the world when the Olympic flame is lit on August 8.

But that dark side to the Olympic flame is nothing new, according to John Hoberman, an professor at the University of Texas and the author of "The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order." He talked to RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher about the intersection of politics and the Games.

RFE/RL: Professor Hoberman, what are some of the most famous Olympic Games where the politics of the era became inseparable from the athletics?

John Hoberman: In the past 75 years there have been five Olympiads that have been given to authoritarian regimes. The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games are a very famous example. In 1968, the Mexico City Olympic Games were preceded by a massacre carried out by the Mexican Army on peaceful demonstrators -- probably in part because of the upcoming games. In 1980, the Moscow summer Olympic Games were controversial because they were staged by a dictatorship that controlled the environment of the capital city with a great police effort. In the case of Beijing, once again the International Olympic Committee decided to go into business with an authoritarian government and this has proved to be very controversial.

RFE/RL: Both 1980 and 1984 saw boycotts of the Games by certain nations for political reasons. In the United States, at least, the decision not to attend the Summer Olympics in 1980 sparked a heated public debate about whether it was appropriate for government leaders to use their athletes as pawns in political games. What were the consequences of the boycotts?

Hoberman: In 1980 President Jimmy Carter of the United States announced a boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games. The United States did not attend. Dozens of other countries did not either. This had a profound effect on those games, including the consequence in 1984, which was a boycott staged against the Los Angeles Olympic Games by the Soviet Union and a number of its communist allies. President Carter's boycott of the 1980 Moscow games was provoked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979.

RFE/RL: So in addition to being a showcase of amazing athletic ability, the modern Olympics have become a platform for both countries and groups to make a statement to the world. When you add in the fact that the governments of the host nation sometimes embrace domestic policies that are at odds with the Olympic spirit of peace and global unity, can there ever truly be an apolitical Olympics?

Hoberman: No, it has never been possible to stage apolitical Olympic Games. In the case of Beijing in 2008, you have a government which has 400,000 children and adolescents in special sports schools with the sole purpose of winning international athletics medals for the People's Republic of China.

Every time the International Olympic Committee goes into business with an authoritarian regime, it is handing that government an opportunity for a very highly publicized demonstration of its power, of its ability to control its domestic environment, of its ability to produce an athletics machine that wins Olympic medals, and its ability to project a powerful image to the world at large.

RFE/RL: When China was awarded the 2008 Games several years ago, it was thrilled at what it saw as its big chance to impress the world. It was a golden public relations opportunity. But the world has watched China use the Olympics as an excuse to send democracy activists to labor camps and bulldoze houses on land it wanted for new stadiums. Human rights groups have had an even bigger platform to highlight China's deplorable treatment of dissidents and oppressive actions in Tibet. Have the Games backfired on China and actually drawn more attention to its flaws?

Hoberman: The anti-Chinese demonstrations that have preceded these Olympic Games apparently surprised the Chinese government. They have certainly upset the Chinese authorities. I saw a recent report from a journalist whose judgment is that as of a few days before the games, China is actually a more restrictive society than it was before the authorities started implementing the security measures.

It is going to take some time before we can understand the impact of the games on China and whether or not they have proven to be a liberalizing influence in the long term, or whether the limited freedoms that have been granted to the foreign media, for example, are going to be rescinded after the Games, or alternatively, whether there is going to be lasting change, in the sense of encouraging the Chinese leadership to open their society more to the outside world.

RFE/RL: The Olympic Games in Seoul in 1988 took place under an authoritarian regime but are actually given credit for helping topple the military dictatorship and pave the way for democratic change. Maybe the International Olympic Committee (IOC) thought the same thing could happen in China?

Hoberman: Yes, the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games probably did help the transition from the military dictatorship to the democracy that we see in South Korea today. When the IOC awarded those games in 1981 however, the South Korean government was a military dictatorship, it had recently massacred hundreds of people in the south of the country in order to put down civilian unrest, and it's unclear to me what the IOC had in mind when they awarded those games to Seoul. In fact, they got lucky. And the developments in the second half of the 1980s favored the liberalization of South Korea and the Olympic Games came along in time to serve a useful purpose.

RFE/RL: The IOC has awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Russia -- another country not known for its democratic achievements. Do you think it will take any lessons from the scrutiny and criticism China has come in for? And do you think the IOC will put more pressure -- either indirectly or directly -- on Russia between now and 2014 to improve its record on democracy and human rights?

Hoberman: I would hope so. But once again, the IOC has invited a very potentially difficult situation. I was surprised when the IOC awarded the 2014 games to Russia. Precisely because in recent years Vladimir Putin has been, in effect, strangling democracy in Russia and imitating the Chinese in the installing of a capitalist economy that gratifies a large part of the population while restricting political and civil freedoms.

It's interesting that the IOC has chosen, in effect, to go into business, with two regimes of this kind within a short period of time. It is possible that they see themselves as global diplomats who can change the world in a positive way. Certainly, their recent statements from Beijing indicate that. The problem is that the IOC in the long run is not really in control of the Games it awards. And when things go well they will take credit; when things go poorly, they will claim that they are not a political organization and that they simply lead a peace movement.

RFE/RL: Do you expect to see a political statement made at the Games in Beijing?

Hoberman: Somebody over the course of the next two weeks is going to make a political statement. I cannot predict who that might be -- I would assume it is most likely to be [a] Chinese. There has already been a public protest by people who were displaced from their homes so that the city could build Olympic venues. This is very common in Olympic cities -- that is, that especially the poor and the vulnerable are cleared out so that Olympic facilities and parks can be built on the land that they previously occupied.

It is possible that Chinese dissidents will do something spectacular in a sense of speaking out at the very time that the regime is absolutely determined to stop this from happening.

RFE/RL: How do you think China would react to being humiliated like that in front of the world?

Hoberman: Judged by the regime's past record, I would assume that the initial response from the government would be relatively mild, for public relations purposes, and then once the Games are over and the spotlight is no longer on the Chinese the way it was during the Games, these people may well be dealt with more harshly.

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