By Marina Hyde (THE GUARDIAN, 09/08/08):
By the time you read this, world peace should have broken out. It should have broken out at precisely 8.08pm Beijing time yesterday, because International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has made his traditional plea for a worldwide military truce for the duration of the games. Yet on the offchance that the Taliban are not laying in supplies of popcorn and preparing for a fortnight on the sofa, and US and British soldiers are not garlanding their tanks with flowers, now might be the time to question the IOC’s preposterously idealised version of itself.
There’s nothing wrong with calling for world peace, of course – beauty queens do it all the time. But you do need to follow it up with something special in the swimsuit round, and one can’t help feeling that the more of itself the IOC bares, the more hideous it appears.
Strip away the grandiose statements, and an examination of how it treats the little guy should tell you all you need to know. Joey Cheek is the former speedskating gold medallist who co-founded Team Darfur, the international athletes’ coalition which highlights the crisis in Sudan. Hours before he was due to travel to Beijing this week, the American’s visa was summarily revoked by the Chinese government. Asked to comment on this blatant attempt to suppress an Olympic hero, an IOC droid explained “non-accredited persons do not fall within the IOC’s remit”. Isn’t it amazing how swiftly one passes from being the winner of the Olympic Spirit Award to the status of “non-accredited person”? Two years ago Cheek won the honour following the winter games in Turin, after donating his medal bonuses to a sport aid organisation. Today, he lacks the requisite paperwork to merit even an IOC platitude.
The decision to award the games to Beijing was always morally compromised – luminously so – and yet again the IOC find themselves highlighting their own absurdity. You can’t call for an immediate cessation of hostilities around the globe and in the next breath decline to get involved in a serious humanitarian issue because a former gold medallist doesn’t have the right accreditation pass. It’s like demanding an end to poverty then refusing to give tuppence to a beggar on the basis that he isn’t wearing a club tie.
Amazingly, it’s not even the IOC’s most unedifying moment of the past fortnight. That honour belongs to their decision to suspend the entire Iraqi Olympic team on the basis that the country’s National Olympic Committee had not been properly recognised by the IOC. Clearly, Iraq’s real crime was not having the right paperwork, though before rescinding the ban on some (but not all) of the athletes, the IOC chuntered that it was because of suspicions of “political interference in the Olympic movement”.
Last week I asked them to clarify why they had never suspected political interference when one Uday Hussein was chairman of the NOC. Unfortunately, they were far too grand to comment, but having since read senior IOC member Dick Pound’s book, I discover that they couldn’t be sure that Uday was a political placeman. Thank God they didn’t put two and two together and make five.
Instead, they focus on issuing directives forbidding athletes from making any political statements. Surely it’s time the IOC re-examined their definition of what it means to be political. It seems entirely acceptable for states to politicise the games by using them as propaganda, and for corporations to do the same (22 years of McDonald’s sponsorship feels faintly agenda-driven). Only the athletes are warned not to step out of line.
Priorities being what they are, the IOC did not bother to issue similar directives instructing China not to bulldoze homes to make way for the new Beijing. And yet they must have known this would happen, as so many games have been preceded by what we might euphemistically describe as a tidying away of humans who don’t match the decor. Consider Mexico City, where police opened fire and killed hundreds of student protesters; or Atlanta, where the organising committee actually built the jail to which many people who committed new offences on the city statute book – like lying down in the street – were dispatched.
This is not “peace through sport”. These things happen precisely because the Olympic games are coming to town, and it should be the IOC’s job to ensure that what is an amazing, inspiring world event does not come at the expense of the vulnerable.
Perhaps the most chillingly revelatory moment in Pound’s book is a quote from former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch, explaining why it was preferable for games to be staged in closed societies or dictatorships. “‘Leesten, Deek,’ he said to me at one point. ‘For [the Olympics], it is much better to go to these countries. There will never be security problems.'” This week, some Beijing street signs bore in the instruction “Stay in to make space for foreign friends”. Stay in, stay grateful, stay schtum.
Watching the IOC grease up to the Chinese government, one can only wonder sarcastically what on earth attracted this one set of appalling old waxworks to the other – apart from a straightforward Narcissus complex.