Going for the Gold

Forty years after the historic 1968 Olympics, the eyes of the world are focused on Beijing. The torch traveled 85,000 miles across the globe, the longest trip it has taken before a game since the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. Just as in 1936, the run-up to these games has been fraught with protests focusing on the host country’s human rights record, leaving many to question if China is using the games for political cover, just as Nazi Germany did.

Critical issues facing China, including conditions in Tibet, the war in Darfur, their support for undemocratic regimes, and most recently, the government’s decision to censor journalists’ use of the Internet during the Olympics, are all garnering media coverage. These competing controversies ultimately beg the question of whether China should have the games at all, and if the United States should participate.

Months ago, Foreign Policy In Focus began covering the raging debate in the human rights community on the possibility of boycotting the Olympics due to China’s support for the repressive government in Sudan. But in July, President George W. Bush committed to go to the games saying he “views the Beijing Games as being about athletics rather than politics.”

While this sentiment may ring true for U.S.athletes, the world stage of the Olympics invariably brings a heavy mixture of sports and politics. During the course of the Olympics, FPIF will explore in a series of articles the impact of the Olympics on China, the roles of sports and politics, and what both governments and social movements hope to achieve at this year’s games.

For 26 years, China refused to participate in the Olympics protesting the inclusion of Taiwan, but at their debut in the 1984 Los Angeles games, they came home with the fourth highest total of medals. Finishing a close second to the United States in the 2004 games in Greece, China is hoping not only to host a successful Olympics but to also bring home the largest pile of gold. But what does China and other governments hope to achieve by participating in the Olympics? FPIF contributor Lincoln Allison writes in What do Governments Want from Sport and What do they Get? that, “Sport is one factor – though often a peculiarly symbolic one – in the complicated process of change in how people feel about themselves, their countries and their governments.”

Allison notes that as in the 1996 games in Atlanta, where there were bombings, bad press from the Games is just as likely as success stories. Writing from the Games, a U.S. academic asks the question, “Can the Olympics Democratize China?” Under a pseudonym, Moji, argues that the prospects for democratization in China have never been more propitious and major forces are likely to unleash themselves during the games. “Indeed,” he says, “the coming Olympic Games may well turn into a mega-drama with far-reaching implications.”

FPIF contributor Alan Bairner warns of a different type of revolution taking over China – that of consumerism. Indeed, the Olympic torch was designed by Lenovo and the tour of the flame was also sponsored by Lenovo. In Heroes of Beijing: The Triumph of the West he points out, “The ultimate winners, however, will never stand on a podium although their logos will be on view throughout the course of the event. Transnational corporations will reign supreme in Beijing just as they have been doing for at least the past 30 years and western capitalist values will have taken another step closer to the winning line.”

Outside the role of government, individual athletes have been most outspoken about foreign policy issues at the games. Forty years after African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed their Power to the People salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, new forms of protest are emerging. FPIF contributor John Beckett explores the latest outbreak of sports and politics in “Breaking Taboos: Mixing Sports and Politics with Team Darfur.”

Olympic skater Joey Cheek has organized 380 Olympic athletes from 56 countries to join in raising awareness and bringing an end to the crisis in Darfur. But as in China, many pressures are conspiring to silence athletes from around the world. In the article, Cheek says, “There is definitely pressure on athletes to fit in, and to not upset sponsors, their national team, and the United States Olympic Committee.”

Even if athletes don’t speak out as Cheek and the rest of Team Darfur are doing, the power they bring to the international arena is strong. As far back as “1921 cultural diplomacy became a state enterprise,” writes FPIF contributor Karin Lee in Beyond Ping-Pong Diplomacy. The best known case of such cultural diplomacy was in 1971 when the U.S. ping pong team traveled to China. But in late 2007, the veil around Bush’s “axis of evil” was cracked when a North Korean National Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team toured the United States. Lee writes, “With a tour like this, there is no revolution in thought or values …. Ultimately, exchanges such as these prepare the people in both countries to work toward and sustain peace between their respective governments.”

Many articles about China’s role in the rest of the world are extremely critical of its actions. FPIF contributor Leif Brottem highlights local resistance to Chinese timber exploitation in the West African republic of Mali. But instead of jumping on the bash- China bandwagon, Brottem argues in Sinafrique that the case “provides a more nuanced look at the Sino-African relationship, which, under certain circumstances, could act as a catalyst for positive political change in Africa.”

Doha is Done (for now)

Still reeling from the aftermath of the massive protests of the World Trade Organization’s 1999 meeting in Seattle, the WTO’s most recent round of negotiations ended without reaching an agreement. Talks have stalled over key issues such as agriculture and industrial tariffs due to major splits between positions of the industrial and developing nations .

Fears of global recession loomed over the talks as well as increasing concerns over food security. And the benefits to the deal were meager. Robert Weissman point s out that, “The Research and Information System for Developing Countries points out that Bank analyses showed a successful conclusion of the Doha Round would, by 2015, increase developing country income in total by $16 billion a year – less than a penny a day for every person in the developing world.”FPIF columnist Walden Bello notes that even if these small benefits emerged out of the latest round, they ignore the serious environmental effects globalized trade has. In Derail Doha, Save the Climate he writes, “In the face of the looming specter of climate change, these negotiations amount to arguing over the arrangement of deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking.”

Cheering the derailment of the current round he concludes, “A derailment of Doha won’t be a sufficient condition to formulate a strategy to contain climate change. But given the likely negative ecological consequences of a successful deal, it’s a necessary condition.”

Out of the Frying Pan

Noting the lessening violence in Iraq, Bush said in a press conference that troops may come home sooner from Iraq than expected. Bush didn’t note the fact that shorter tours of duty were the reason behind the shift in policy – instead he claimed that the success of the “surge” was the reason.

Picking up on the false promises of the “surge” strategy, both John McCain and Barack Obama have touted the strategy of sending more troops to Afghanistan. But as FPIF columnist Conn Hallinan argues, this failed strategy in Iraq will likely meet the same fate in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan: Not a Good War Hallinan argues that we must abandon our “story” about the Afghan conflict as a “good war.” In this new millennium, he says, there are no good wars.

Just as in Afghanistan, where too much attention has been paid to military solutions and not enough to reconstruction, in Postcard from … Freetown, FPIF contributor Joseph Kaifala points out that the development needs of Sierra Leoneans are playing second fiddle to the U.S. drive to create a military command for Africa known as AFRICOM.