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Exposing Beijing's 'Genocide Olympics'

Q U I C K S C A N

Fanning the Flame
Our Global Family
Spoiled Sports


Perhaps no athlete in history embodies the uncontaminated spirit of the Olympic Games quite like Jesse Owens. Picture it: An African-American—scarcely appreciated in his own country, let alone a foreign one—bested nonbelievers, naysayers and Nazis, winning four gold medals at the Berlin Games in 1936.

Standing on the podium, his hand pressed to his forehead in salute, Owens proved that even the darkest chapters in world history could not dim the brilliancy of the Games.

Seventy-two years later, on the eve of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, another shadowy chapter looms. Many in the world community are taking aim at China for human-rights abuses. Activists see the upcoming Olympics as a way to illuminate the country’s wrongdoings. Others are outraged that political issues are even mentioned in the same breath as the Games.

This uproar has put the Olympics—once the premier stage for global oneness—at center stage for protest.

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On March 24, 2008, the Olympic torch was ignited in Greece. Six days later, in Athens, pro-Tibetan demonstrators disrupted a ceremony in which the flame was handed over to Chinese officials. Some 15 people were arrested.

From there, the anarchy spread. Unrest marred the torch relay in London, Istanbul, Paris and San Francisco, shining an unflattering light on the Chinese government.

The country itself is a paradox: Celebrated for its traditions and innovations, China has also erred consistently in the arena of human rights.

The most explosive issues are:

Tibet: Freedom for Tibetans ended in the 13th century when the kingdom became part of China’s Yuan Dynasty. It has been a bloody history ever since. Tibetans want to be declared an independent state, free from a repressive, Communist regime. Many worldwide support this cause.

But the Chinese government has been swift in quieting the growing dissent. According to a report by Amnesty International, activists have met with excessive force, lengthy detentions and intimidation.

Darfur: China’s financial and diplomatic ties with Sudan have compelled many human-rights advocates around the world to christen the Beijing Games the “Genocide Olympics.” Amnesty International reports that China has a 40-percent stake in Sudanese oil and is their major arms distributor.

The United Nations estimates that 300,000 Darfurians have died and at least two million are displaced, with numbers steadily rising.

Pollution: Tests have found Beijing’s pollution to be two to three times higher than what the World Health Organization deems acceptable. Visiting countries have reacted accordingly: The U.S. Olympic Committee, suspicious of China’s food safety, plans to import its own; athletes from Japan and South Korea will spend their downtime training offshore.

But even more toxic than the smog over Beijing is the lingering stench of injustice that will not dissipate.

Yet it’s easy to be distracted by the thrill of an Olympic moment. When U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps breaks the surface of the water for the 200-meter butterfly, it’s unlikely the crisis in Darfur will be on our minds.

Nor will the Tibetan people weigh on our hearts as Abby Wambach, forward for the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, charges Norway’s defensive line in their opening round game.

But we should care. Deeply.

We should care as Catholics: For the opening ceremony of the Games, the Vatican plans to send John Tong Hon—Hong Kong’s coadjutor bishop—to make the Church a visible presence to the Chinese government. The country’s eight to 12 million Catholics are stifled under its authoritarian rule.

We should care as lovers of sport: At its heart, there is nobility to the Olympic tradition. China’s track record with human rights spoils what makes the Games so significant.

We should care as people: The Darfurian refugees face the daily threat of disease, rape, starvation and violent militias, who are armed, in part, from Chinese dollars. When members of our global family are mired in a crisis like the genocide in Darfur, it’s unconscionable to turn away.

Activist groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Students for a Free Tibet are urging an international boycott. So far, no country has complied. Perhaps officials remember the futility of the boycotted Games of 1980 and 1984.

China vows to use this occasion to foster global harmony, a principle mirrored in the theme of the Beijing Games: “One World, One Dream.” But the irony of that sentiment is palpable: With a growing tally of human-rights abuses, the “dream” China professes is a living nightmare for many.

The actions of their governing body degrade the integrity of the Games, integrity that was fought for by gifted athletes—pure in spirit and strong in body—like Jesse Owens.

Owens himself once spoke of that unsullied Olympic joy when asked about his record-breaking long jump.

“I decided I wasn’t going to come down. I was going to fly,” he said. “I was going to stay up in the air forever.”—C.H.


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