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
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.
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
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
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
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.