Welcome to the Summer Olympics 2008 – China and Tibet and Other Vexations


It’s taken years to get here, but in just a few months, the Summer Olympic Games 2008 will open in China.  This “XXIX Olympiad” will be a pageant of nations with a stirring opening ceremony – and the spirit of the games (sportsmanship and competition) will resume after a four-year hiatus (the last summer games were in Athens.)


The Chinese government worked hard to position the nation as a full member of the Family of Nations and worthy of International Olympic Committee consideration.  What happens at and around and to these games can have a long life in terms of reputation.  Not always “good” things happen.  Take the Mexico City Olympics 1968 – remember the “Black Power” salutes of American medal winners Tommy Smith and John Carlos as the Star Spangled Banner was played?  (An enduring image of raised arms with fists clenched — they were representing the Olympics Project for Human Rights at the height of the US civil rights struggles.) Some folks in the USA do remember that gesture and consider it an insult to the whole American nation.  The media were all over these games, which were preceded by the terrible Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico, where 300 university students were reportedly killed by the Mexican government forces.


And then there are the never-happened games of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter would not allow US teams to compete.  Reason:  the USSR had invaded Afghanistan in 1979.  The games were in Moscow and 64 nations boycotted the Games of the XXII Olympiad.  Four years earlier there were 24 nations boycotting the 1976 summer games in Montreal because of various reasons – Taiwan, the Republic of China pulled out because Canada had recognized the People’s Republic of China and couldn’t let two “China’s” compete.  South Africans rallied two dozen African nations to boycott. You get the picture.


So, what may be in store for China and the rest of the world this summer? Don’t bet against major civil protests of all kinds – many are already underway – as we move toward the start of the games.  Protestors have already tried to interfere with the lighting of the Olympic torch at the site of the ancient Greek games (that was March 24 in Olympia).  The torch will be carried thousands of miles through 19 countries (from Greece to China) and used to light the torch to signal start of the games.  We’re on Day Five now and the torch (which started at the Temple of Hera) was passed to the first Chinese torch bearer – a huge honor for both ancient nations – is still in Greece, in Thessalonkai.


The mother flame was used to ignite the torch (or torches – there are back up measures), and the torch will be lit all the way to its destination.  In 1984 the torch was carried across most of the American continent and through state-after-state, from ocean-to-ocean, New York to Los Angeles (where the XXIII Games were held).  There were almost no disruptions and along most of the route there were folks lined up to cheer the runners on (they run in relays) as they moved through 33 states and the District of Columbia and covered almost 10,000 miles. (Disclosure: this writer helped plan the event for the corporate sponsor, AT&T. Remember Olympics winner Rafer Johnson bringing that torch into the LA stadium?)  And, oh yes, this was a nettlesome event for the USA – Russia retaliated for 1980 and did not participate; most of the Communist Bloc nations did not; the Libyans didn’t show up.  There had to be the “Friendship Games” organized later to allow for all to have their competitions.  Whew!  (President Ronald Reagan opened the official games in his home state of California.)


And so in 2008 the torch will travel along a l-o-n-g route, from Greece to China and then out through many countries on it way to China and the opening of the gamesQuestions: .  Will there be demonstrations and disruptions along the way?  Google “Summer Olympics 2008, protests” and you will find almost 400,000 entries, the must recent focused on those by Pro-Tibetan independence groups – including the Students for a Free Tibet – and rising public opinion as advocates speak out against the Chinese state on various issues:  rising pollution; human rights abuses; religious intolerance; environmental standards, suppression of Tibetan independence, and more.


Important questions:  To what level will protest rise as (1) the torch makes its way across Europe, North America, Asia, etc.; (2) the intensity of the rage against China’s policies on various issue rises (moving toward the games); (3) incidents may occur inside China that incur the wrath of the government; (4) incidents may occur around the China borders, such as in Tibet, that invite response; (5) the foreign governments that are protesting China policies, such as Australia, continue to put the pressure on; (6) China’s government begins to aggressively repress internal dissidents who may join external critics’ campaigns; (7) foreign media, especially US media, cover events both inside and outside China that the Chinese government objects to – perhaps ejecting journalists or denying them entrance to China; (8) Corporate America may get nervous about the ways things are going, and then…?


And more questions: What will the increasing pressures of items #1-8 (above) and more be on corporations in US, EU, UK and other regions that are prominent sponsors of the games?  Already the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, is commenting that the committee should not have given the games to China – “…sadly, the Chinese government has not lived up to its commitments to improve the human rights situation in China and Tibet…”  What more is to come?  Germany is talking about not sending its dignitaries to the games; so is Australia; folks in the US are beginning to urge President Bush to stay away.


Make no mistake: These are very important games for China.  In 1984 at the Los Angeles games the United States won 83 gold, 61 silver and 30 bronze medals – 174 in all, with the closest nation being West Germany (before reunification) with 59.  So – you can expect that Chinese athletes will be doing their best to win as many medals as possible – a further boost to the nation and the Chinese people as they take their place among the leaders in the Family of Nations. (Remember the Chinese nation was in comparative isolation for many years after the Communist Revolution of the 1940s.)  These Olympics will clearly show “they’ve arrived.”


We are still at the very beginning of the protest campaigns – so watch that torch moving at a slow pace as the runners bob up and down across the many countries en route to China.  That could be the key precursor of what is to come.  Or at least what is now visible – remember that stealth campaigns can be executed out of sight now, thanks to the global technology base.  What’s on your list serv?



See: for details about China’s “official” view of the games.


See: for the route of the games.



And stay tuned to this column space for updates and commentary on the torch run – 130 days to go!