First Person: Kevin Wamsley 

Outrage over Chinese crackdown on Tibet demonstrates why the Olympics can never be separate from politics

When China was awarded the 2008 Olympic Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee, former International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch said: “I think this is a very important step in the evolution of China’s relation to the world.”

The IOC’s past executive director, Francois Carrard, went one step further: “Some people say, because of human rights issues, ‘We close the door and say no.’ The other way is to bet on openness. Bet on the fact that in the coming seven years, openness, progress and development in many areas will be such that the situation has improved. We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.”

It appears, in light of China’s recent crackdown on Tibet, continued threats to Taiwan, stonewalling over the crises in Sudan and Burma, and denial of personal freedoms for the Chinese people, that Carrard has lost his bet. For all appearances, China today is still very much the same China as yesterday when it comes to human rights, defending its interests, stifling free speech and freedom of the press, and maintaining its empire.

The recent Chinese military crackdown on Tibetan protestors, marking the anniversary of China’s invasion and occupation of that country on March 10, 1950, has reportedly resulted in up to 160 deaths and prompted an international call to boycott the 2008 Summer Games, or at the very least the opening ceremonies. The 2008 torch relay is also being met with protestors at every stop in Europe, and this week officials in France even had to extinguish the torch to escape from an angry crowd of 4,000 protestors.

In response to the controversy, current IOC president Jacques Rogge has promised to talk to Chinese leaders, while essentially backpedaling on earlier claims that the Olympics could draw attention to China’s human rights record and transform the country to be more fair and democratic. Now Rogge’s position is that the Olympics are primarily a sporting event, and that the IOC is not a political organization.

He also insisted, in an interview with the Associated Press, that human rights have improved in China as a result of the Games, although he didn’t provide any examples.

Whether the Games can influence a country to become more open or democratic is always a matter of debate, but it’s safe to say that Kevin Wamsley, a history professor and director of the International Center for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, is on record as being skeptical.

When China won the right to host the Olympics in 2001, Wamsley told the New York Times, “There is a feeling that the Olympic Games promote world peace and humanitarian causes and can impact social change immediately…. History has shown the Games have not done these kinds of things.”

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