The post was written in 2008. It retains relevance as the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014 draws to a close.
The Beijing Olympics is launched amid a flurry of political stories. The old dilemma is a dilemma no more. It seems that sport and politics can not be kept separate. But there may be ways of them co-existing, with the help of creative leadership
The Financial Times suggested that it was always a pious hope that politics and sport could be kept apart at Beijing.
On the eve of the Olympic Games, Reuters news agency reported that
More than 40 athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics have urged China to peacefully settle contention over Tibet and protect freedom of religion and opinion, rights groups said, raising pressure on the Games host ..The Games participants are among 127 international athletes reported to have signed a petition to Chinese President Hu Jintao, bringing sports and human rights together in a way that Beijing has often rejected as “politicising” the Olympics.
Meanwhile, human rights protesters at Liberty Square, Taipei call for an alternative ‘Peace’ Olympics.
The signs became obvious as far back as February 2008 when Stephen Spielberg announced his resignation as a high-profile artistic advisor to the Games.
His political purpose was to draw attention to the continued humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Spielberg,claimed that China was
not doing enough to pressure Sudan to end the human suffering in the troubled western Darfur region in the five-year conflict.
The Darfur issue has been kept in the headlines by Team Darfur
in a longer-running campaign by athletes concerned over the Darfur situation.
The rationale of Team Darfur is to make a difference politically in Darfur, through the publicity gained by the support of high-profile athletes.
This week we learn that a member of Team Darfur would be carrying the Olympic flag in the opening ceremony. The story was that of child rescued from Darfur who became a US citizen.
A day after China jerked the visa of former Olympian Joey Cheek because of his high-profile support for Darfur, the U.S. Olympic team announced it had voted a former Sudanese refugee the honor of carrying the American flag into the stadium for the opening ceremonies. the selection of Lopez Lomong, a 1,500-meter runner who became a U.S. citizen 13 months ago, contains almost as much provocation as poignancy.
The Olympic Flame and its Political Journey
The run-up to the Olympics has been simplified into a story of civil rights which was sustained because of the highly symbolic journey of the Olympic flame around the world. The focus of the story increasingly became the political conditions in Tibet.
Maybe it seemed a great gesture in the planning stage. But as we have been reminded, much of the ceremony and its political potential was anticipated in Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.
Then there’s President Bush
The President has been increasingly down-staged by the momentum of the Presidential race in recent months. This week he had to re-enter the limelight, perhaps reluctantly. His position presents a classic dilemma of leadership. Actions (going to the Games) or non-actions (staying away) are likely to bring tricky political repercussions.
Bush decided to go to the Games, while reserving his criticisms of China’s political position for speeches en route to Beijing.
The Leadership Issues
Start from the perspective of leadership as a process of influencing people towards the achievement of objectives. Negotiating, selling, threatening, and protesting, represent behaviours with leadership connections.
From such a broad perspective, we can recognise the various inter-related leadership activities within the stories connected with the Beijing Olympics.
Try as we might, it is hard to bracket out those elements which are ‘purely’ sporting. The Olympic movement has lofty aspirational goals. Even these are increasingly under threat from commercial interests of sponsors. Can we conclude that the decisions to grant the Games are being made simply on sporting considerations?
The structures around the Olympic movement are as complex as any found in global organisations of any kind. Its members influence and are influenced by the political and economic elites of the countries they represent.
This is a major way in which sport and politics mix. But then there are the multiple constituencies who oppose the policies of those in power are the world. There are constitutional as well as revolutionary oppositions.
The various demonstrations that are occurring around the Olympics are no more than the slightest of confirmations (if confirmation were needed) that we are a long way away from a Utopian world of Olympian ideals and universally shared values.
So what, you may well ask. Because the next few weeks offer a chance to take part in events that will touch almost every one on the planet. Each of us will be prompted to make decisions for ourselves. Watch the games, forget the politics? Take direct action in support of some cherished cause? Give what you can to Darfur, or Tibet, or a more local cause.
Many years ago I spent a year working in New York at a time of National upheaval over the political implication of its military policy in Vietnam. I found it difficult to square my sense of being a guest in a foreign land, not at all clear about the broader context, but someone whose friends were mostly urging me to join them in their anti-war protests. But their arguments were less convincing than their commitment to the anti-war cause.
Later, back in the UK, there were echoes of this dilemma in my ambivalence about the arguments in favour of the CND movement.
I wish I had been able to realize then that there was no right or wrong answer based on the evidence available to me. I was trying to work out what to do, when faced with values apparently pointing in different directions.
A More Creative Stance
To take a far more significant example, the Dali Lama found a resolution to the issue. He has consistently made it clear (a leadership task) what he intends to do regarding the Beijing Olympics. He welcomes the opportunity presented to the Chinese people, and will do nothing to diminish it as a sporting event. This permits him to work as he always has for the rights he seeks for Tibet.
Maybe he illustrates the creativity needed to deal with an apparently intractable problem. In which case we have a modern version of an ancient paradox resolved by rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, without compromising commitment to another and higher authority.