Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Sporting Chances for Burma?

China's Olympic workout

The Beijing Games next year may prove to be China's Achilles heel - if human rights groups can hit it.

Full text of Comment is Free
October 1, 2007 11:00 AM | Printable version

The UN general assembly and the Olympics may not seem that connected, but there are similarities. The latter is an official occasion for global peace and harmony to which almost every country in the world sends its national team to compete ferociously with others and whip up varying degrees of nationalist fervour at home.

Last week's meeting of the general assembly was no different, although we did miss Hugo Chavez's attempt to expand President Bush's reading material beyond the Pet Goat. There was something quite athletic about how different delegations raced up the aisles in the competitive walkout stakes to make sure that a row of empty seats greeted whoever the demon of the day was as he took the rostrum. The sprint was definitely the race that the original Olympians, the Greeks, won to protest the omission of (Former Yugoslav Republic of) from Macedonia's title.

The Cuban foreign minister's articulate and, sad to say, factually based (if somewhat one-sided) verbal assault on Bush, in reply to the latter's attack on Castro, played a nice counterpart to the orotundly obscure style of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact the puzzled expressions of the Iranian and American presidents almost had me thinking they were competing for the Mad Magazine Alfred E Neuman "What, Me Worry?" gold medal. (Bush wins on quotes.)

But the Iranian did actually put himself forward for the press - as long as they were not from the Israeli team. Bush may be somewhat challenged, but he knows his limitations enough to avoid unchoreographed and unscripted press conferences.

It may have been my early years as a conductor on football trains, but I've always been very dubious of the idea that sport and peace go hand in hand. Even apart from the personal experience of trying to fend off scores of rabid fans after someone's blood, sport's track record of promoting harmony does not impress. It is not just the fans - think of the football war of 1969. The Olympics has not been much better.

Indeed totalitarianism and the track seem much more closely related. From Hitler in 1936 - and it would have been held in Tokyo in 1940 if throwing javelins had not been overshadowed by firing shells - right on to Beijing, tough regimes love sport. Just look at the gymnastic splendour of a Kim Jong Il birthday party, the inhumane training regime of the East Germans.

At least one thing that can be said about the major American sports, baseball and the American version of football, is that since few other countries play them at a serious level, they are not really the occasions for xenophobic competitiveness on a grand scale. It seems like archetypal American isolationism that they have a baseball World Series just for themselves.

But the Beijing Olympics offers a genuine opportunity for peace. The Chinese are so concerned about urination on their 2008 parade that human rights organisations and governments that support human rights (and even those like Bush's that pretend to do so) have a rare but serious opportunity to get the Chinese onside. The Taiwanese know this - that's why they are staging their referendum on UN membership early in the New Year - not long before the Olympics.

From Darfur to Rangoon, there are definite signals that roguish states that have benefited from Chinese diplomatic protection are feeling a little chilly. The more calls there are for boycotts, the less likely Beijing is to go out on a limb for its mass murdering friends.

Human rights supporters should keep talking boycotts, and they may even put some truth in the rumours of a responsibility to protect that the UN general assembly voted for in 2005, with none against. China seems to have forgotten that principle - that mass murders by governments are a threat to international peace and security that demand United Nations action.

No comments: