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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What Would Brian Boitano Do?

"The torch as always represented hope, peace and unity. To extinguish the flame of hope is the wrong thing to do."

So says Dean Karnazes, a torch relay runner in this year's Olympic Torch relay, quoted in a CNN article on the protests planned for the leg in San Francisco following the disasters in London and Paris.

All good and well, Dean. Perhaps your right.

For others the Torch relay is an overblown spectacle leading to yet another overblown spectacle--the opening ceremony--all of it naiive feel-good jingo designed to spur interest in what amounts to the world's greatest advertising opportunity, complete with product tie-ins and juicy product endorsement deals for Olympians who through a combination of charm and athletic prowess capture the hearts of millions. Who better, then, to sell these adoring fans Wheaties and Jeep Cherokees?

Two interpretations, both true, both false, neither complete. One political and idealistic, another cynical and economic. The only thing missing thing missing is the athletes.

No matter what your take on the Olympics as an event, it's hard to deny that the athletes posess rare combinations of talent, skill determination and courage. Some of these young athletes have trained practically all of their lives for a shot at Olympic gold and deserve a lot better than a farcical and cowardly abbreviated relay aimed at avoiding the legitimate protests in support of the right to free speech and self-determination, not to mention the right not to be invaded and massacred.

They deserve, in short, a whole lot better than China.

Not only will these young Olympians have to worry about each other and the folks back home as they step into the arena, they will have to contend with possibly tainted food, sub-standard housing and terrible air pollution. But that's not all. They're stepping into a police state where the Chinese have maintained their right to limit live broadcasts, pursue vigorous elecronic surveillance and tight control of all expressions of protest by athletes. No 1968 style Black Power salutes here, Jack. Anything like that might cost them their hard-won medals. Everything will be tightly controlled and orchestrated in an attept to give the impression that everything and everyone is fine and happy in the totalitarian shopping mall.

Fitting then, that this supposedly ancient tradition was in fact devised by Leni Riefenstahl for her film Olympia, an admittedly beautiful film documenting the 1936 Berlin Olympics, exploited as a propaganda opportunity to glorify the Third Reich.

From the Times:

The torch relay is a celebration of the ancient fires that burnt through the original Olympiads but the idea of carrying the flame from Olympia to the host city each year was invented by the organisers of the 1936 Berlin games.

The relay, captured in Leni Riefenstahl's film, "Olympia", was part of the Nazi propaganda machine’s attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Hitler saw the link with the ancient Games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.

Fitting, really, for a regime equally as brutal, equally against the ideals the Olympics purports to represent. The Times reports that the flame was extinguished only twice before during the relay, both times by weather. It was put out three times in Paris before officials had to call it quits and sneak the fractious firebrand along the rest of the Paris leg in a bus.

The origin of the relay was first brought to our attention by the Washington Post blog The Lede, which quotes Times columnist Mary Beard saying the tradition should be "stamped out." In our opinion, the Nazi origin doesn't necessarily mean it should be abolished, if it can truly represent not totalitarianism, but opportunity, hope and global competition in a fair and inspiring context. By promulgating the antithesis of fascist ideology, the Olympics can at least make an attempt to represent something positive in a world increasingly devoid of anything worth aspiring to.

But as long as these Olympics take place in Beijing, they haven't a chance; they're simply perpetrating the same thing Hitler represented in 1936. China is not simply a cheap supermarket and a low-cost labor pool, and Tibet is only the tip of the iceberg. Appeasement didn't prevent the Second World War. Kow-towing to Beijing will only embolden and legitimize something potentially far worse.

P.S.

from Washington diary: China's crisis (10 April):

For China, the Games are a coming-out party for an emerging super-power, a chance to prove to the world that it deserves to be respected, that it has finally shaken off the yoke of Communist isolation or colonial occupation.

The Games will put a human face to all those economic statistics that the world has marvelled at for so many years. In Beijing, the Olympics will not just be a sporting event. They will be a national celebration.

The claim that this is just another international sporting event simply does not wash. The Chinese themselves do not see it that way. The Olympics have always been prone to political meddling. They are after all a competition between nation states and not individual sportsmen and women.

President Bush told me in February that he does not support any boycott. He knows better than anyone how much Chinese investment now underwrites the US economy, how many billions of dollars in US treasury bonds are owned by
China.

And let's face it: you do not pick a fight with your banker, especially when your economy is in trouble.


Turned Off by Torch Guards (11 April) is an article about the strong-arm style of the Chinese Sacred Flame Protection Unit, the tough-looking phalanx of fellow guarding the relay in spiffy blue and white tracksuits. "The special squad was made up of losely vetted volunteers from the special forces academy of the paramilitary People's Armed Police, state-controlled news media reported."


2 comments:

  1. "Sporting chivalrous contest," Hitler declared just before the torch was lit, "helps knit the bonds of peace between nations. Therefore may the Olympic flame never expire." - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7330949.stm

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  2. "in 1976 ... the flame was transformed to a radio signal. From Athens, this signal was transmitted by satellite to Canada, where it was received and used to trigger a laser beam to re-light the flame." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympic_Flame

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