Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Flame, Fury and Farce

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth, Act V, Scene V

I'm in two minds about the Olympics. From a sporting perspective, I love it. I enjoy the drama and the spectacle and the ridiculous sense that you get for five minutes that maybe in some small way it does the world good to come together for such a great sporting occasion. But then the drugs cheats rip right into that idealistic notion, and part of me thinks it's just a tawdry sideshow.

On top of all that, this time we have the knotty problem that is the fact that the IOC in their wisdom decided that China was fit to host the 2008 Olympics. The IOC of course have a fine history of giving the Olympics to dodgy nations (see Munich 1936, Moscow 1980) and of course in theory, politics and sports shouldn't mix.

I know six or seven years ago, or however long ago it was that China was awarded the Games, the IOC might have been forgiven for thinking that China was changing, becoming more consumerist, more western, more democratic, more like US perhaps, but hell do they pay no attention to human rights abuses?

The persecution of Tibetan monks isn't something that started a month ago, it's been going on for decades. And Chinese determination to destroy Tibetan culture is a bit of ethnic cleansing every bit as unpleasant as what happened in Bosnia. Tianamen Square happened less then twenty years ago, and I imagine (though I don't know enough about it to be sure) that plenty of its architects still have positions of power. Certainly from my quick trawl through wikipedia it appears that the Chinese government have all but wiped out reference to it from their history books, and a whole generation has grown up knowing nothing about it. They are benefitting from China's growing prosperity and presumably a lot of them are unaware of the brutality of a regime which is currently presenting a smiling face to a world that knows better.

So, I don't think China should ever have been allowed to host the Olympics, and I was pretty horrified when I heard the Olympic flame was coming to London. Personally I think Gordon Brown should have fudged it, sod whether or not we're hosting in 2012, it's about time our politicians showed some moral fibre. But hell, no one said anything about Zimbabwe or the Sudan till it was too difficult to ignore, why should they say stir up things with China? Because China are simply too necessary for us now. Where would we all be without their cheap goods flooding the market? And how long would our economy survive without their input?

And that is the nub of the problem. Jim White pointed out (rightly, I think) in yesterday's Telegraph that it isn't fair just to target the Olympics/sports people for getting into bed with China to suit their own purpose, we are all complicit to a degree.

I was initially against the likes of Sir Steve Redgrave, Paula Radcliffe and so many of my other sporting heroes/heroines carrying the torch through London, as it did seem that they were condoning what is happening in Tibet and elsewhere. But presumably when this was decided, the situation hadn't escalated the way it now has. What looked like a reasonable proposition even six months ago, looks very different now. Besides, as Sir Steve said on Sunday, he thinks protests against the flame should happen. By allowing the procession to go ahead and descend into the farce it has done, while it may damage the Olympic ideal etc (Olympic ideal, not already tarnished beyond all measure anyway? Discuss.), actually allows the wider voice of the protestors to be heard. I really really hope the Chinese government has been thrown into turmoil by the pictures beamed round the world of protestors trying (and succeeding yesterday in Paris) to extinguish the Olympics flame. And the banners already aloft on the Golden Gate Bridge make it all too abundantly clear what the rest of us think about Chinese abuses in Tibet.

I'm not normally a fan of civil disobedience, as I don't think ultimately it achieves all that much, but I have to admit to cheering when I heard yesterday that the flame had been extinguished, and the procession abandoned. No clearer message can have been sent to the Chinese government than that.

I also feel immensely sorry for the athletes involved. They train four years for the Olympics, they might only have one shot at it. They cannot be expected to bear the burden of feeble politicians' lack of spirit. And I think the people who carried the flame on Sunday in incredibly difficult circumstances deserve our respect. For people like Tim Henman and Paula Radcliffe to be booed (something I don't incidentally condone) must have been a bitter pill to swallow, but they could have easily opted out. The fact that they carried the flame and took the flak allowed the protestors to make their point.

I suspect this Games is going to be horribly controversial and leave us all with a bitter taste in our mouth. But now I think, yes, it should go ahead, because I hope it will become a focal point for people's anger at what is happening in Tibet, and though ultimately their sound and fury may signify nothing, it is, I think very much worth the candle.


Political Umpire said...

Great post Jane, said everything I might have thought of, and saved me the trouble (as well as putting me to shame over a more frivolous bit on the London games this morning). I particularly like your closing para.

Debi said...

Great post! The thing is that if the Games weren't going to be held in Beijing, it wouldn't give us the opportunity to turn the spotlight on the human rights abuses in China in this way.

It's impossible to separate out the politics and the sport but it IS possible to support the participants while criticising the regime.

This is hardly the first time this issue has come up. Munich 1936 being co-opted by the Nazis (who actually were the ones who instituted the torch relay BTW, not the ancient Greeks). Jesse Owens ... The medalists giving Black Power salutes from the podium ... the list goes on.

Jane Henry said...

PU, I can do frivolous too (see previous Dr Who posts, and wait for post on Spouse's motor...) I quite like the diversity of mixing the frivolous with the serious. And we can't all be wringing our hands ALL the time....

Debi, yeah I think I agree with that now. I just didn't to begin with and was wondering whether or not to watch. I feel very sorry for the athletes who are probably told they can't say anything - similarly felt for our English cricketers being sent to Zimbabwe a few years ago. They were all clearly incredibly uncomfortable, but in their case it was the ICC holding them to ransom and our cricketing board being lily livered about it. Spouse thought that Gordon Brown should have met the flame with a bunch of Tibetan kids. Now THAT I would have admired...

Curly said...

It was a Black day for Gordon Brown and the UK govt.

Who authorised the use of Chinese security personnel in London?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post - I do agree with you. I wish Gordon Brown had used the opportunity to make a statement or the IOC had allowed people to wear "Free Tibet" T shirts. I was also disappointed with some of the protestors who were apparently abusive, and those that tussled with Konnie Huq seemed to have frightened her Though I can understand feelings are running high on this, I wish they had had a bit more self control.

You may not be surprised that I feel I need to challenge you that civil disobedience doesn't achieve much. What about the suffragettes, Gandhi's nonviolent revolution in India, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King in the US, the deposing of Marcos in the Philippines, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in Germany? All examples of people breaking the law, nonviolently and contributing to the enormous changes they were after. Having said that I don't think you should do civil disobedience just for the sake of it and it probably works best when well thought out. Somebody on Indymedia was suggesting disrupting The London Marathon the other day to protest about Tibet and that seemed totally nonsensical to me.....

Mad Twinx