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The day the flame died…..

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Not exactly what De Coubertin envisaged (Image from New York Times).

The flame did not actually out ‘die out’, but had to be extinguished several times, as pro-Tibetian protesters disrupted the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay. This was after similar protests in London (in addition to protests by Uighur Muslims in Istanbul) and certainly there is more to come.

Much of the protest is in response to the recent Chinese crackdown in Tibet, as well as an overall activism against China’s poor human rights record and suppression of individual rights. Calls have gone out for sportsmen to boycott the games and for world leaders to skip the opening/closing ceremonies to mark solidarity with the Tibetans.

However, some have questioned the timing of these protests: asking why it took an Olympic Games to highlight the Tibetan struggle and if an event that is meant for sports is a right place to mix in politics.

The answer to the first is the brutal truth that most people simply don’t care beyond their own sphere until it becomes fashionable to do so. For many years, the question of Tibet’s right to independence from China has been a niche cause célèbre. But now with the whole world’s attention on China, it was somewhat inevitable and justified that pro-independent elements in Tibet would attempt to highlight their plight. Just as surely, most people will forget the issue about a month after the Olympics (how many people care anymore about Darfur, even while the situation there has hardly improved?).

The second issue of whether sports and politics should mix is tougher to answer. While the protests are far removed from the idealism of promoting world peace and healthy relation between nations that Baron Coubertin preached, the Olympics are no strangers to political controversies, starting from the Nazi propaganda of 1936 to the terrorist acts in Munich ’72 and reaching a nadir with the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and ’84.

[The games have been relatively free of politics since then, though not short of controversies – from doping (or how best the athletes dont get caught), overcommercialisation, corruption in the bidding process etc. No one other than a dewy-eyed innocent will claim that the Olympics is about the spirit anymore.]

So there is precedence in the politicization of the Olympics. More broadly, sporting bans have been used – arguably with success – in dismantling South Africa’s apartheid regime. And Olympics is certainly one of the biggest sporting events (actually, currently more of an event or a gala than sports). So there is certainly some justification there as well.

However, the bigger question is whether any of these protests will an effect on the Chinese government or its policies. When demonstrations took place in Tibet, the Chinese were able to crack-down severely, gagging the media in the process. They have also launched an aggressive public relations strategy responding to the world-wide protests.

But herein lies the importance of the current torch-relay protests: They are happening in major world cities, and most notably in socities that actually allow the freedom to voice dissent. With such prolonged agitations against the most prominent symbol of an event that is supposed to be the Chinese government’s grand showpiece, how long can they afford to keep up the bullying tactics ?

Conversely, it is also time for national governments around the world to use the opportunity in forcing China’s hand into tackling human rights issues (So far, such a policy hasn’t been forthcoming, most head of states have been satisfied to merely voice demured complaints).

Additionally, given the commercial nature of the Olympics, will such prolonged agitations force the mega-corporations sposoring the events, to think twice about the risks invested in associating their names with Beijing Olympics?

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PS: Coming back to the torch relay, in our own country (where we sadly continue to suck at the Olympics), the torch is being carried by such sporting luminaries as Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan. Thankfully, one deserving torch bearer, Baichung Bhutia, has refused citing solidarity with the Tibetans.

Additionally, we have allowed ourselved to be stared down by the Chinese diplomacy over Tibet (see excellent posts by Nitin here and here).

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(Thanks to Rohit for comments/discussions)

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

April 7, 2008 at 11:26 pm