King Kaufman Sports Daily

IOC president Rogge's pretense that the Olympics aren't political has him defending China as it cracks down on freedoms.

By King Kaufman
Published March 25, 2008 10:45AM (EDT)

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said in an Associated Press interview Monday that he's engaged in "what I call 'silent diplomacy'" -- by which he seemed to mean back-channel discussions -- with Chinese authorities about Tibet and other human-rights issues. But Rogge insisted that the IOC can't interfere in the host nation's internal affairs.

"We are not a political body, we are not an NGO," Rogge said, reiterating a long-held position, "but it is our responsibility to make sure the athletes get the best possible games which they deserve."

China has poured troops into Tibet and neighboring Chinese provinces in the last two weeks in response to protests marking the anniversary of China's occupation of Tibet in 1951. There have also been international demonstrations, including at the lighting of the Olympic torch in Greece Monday.

Human-rights protesters have long said they would use the Olympics, scheduled for August in Beijing, as a focal point for their protests of abuses by China.

In response to the unrest, China, as part of an overall crackdown, has announced that international broadcasters would be banned from showing Tiananmen Square during the Olympics. The Chinese have also closed the Tibet side of Mount Everest to climbers to quash possible protests.

There's some sense in Rogge's position. The Olympics are a sporting event designed to bring athletes of the world together in peaceful -- and, these days, lucrative -- competition. It's proper to try to keep them separate from political questions, to not use them as a hammer to further a political agenda.

Most of the world can get behind the agenda of improved human rights in China or anywhere else, but what will the next agenda be? And who will be pushing it? It doesn't take a lot of imagination to envision the Olympics themselves held hostage to the platform of whatever political faction is able to gain control of the IOC. And if the IOC is actively involving itself in politics, more political factions will be vying for control.

But for all that, Rogge's position is disingenuous.

The International Olympic Committee might not see itself as a political body, but it can't avoid political decisions. It made one in 2001 when it awarded the 2008 Games to Beijing. Rogge has talked ever since about how the Olympics would shine a spotlight on China and force it to improve its human-rights record.

More than anything, that was a justification for what was essentially an economic decision, opening up the massive, emerging China market for Olympics Inc. But how was it not political to say that granting the Games to China would improve human rights there? It's political to say that China must improve on human rights, and it's political to argue that certain actions, such as granting the Games, will foster that improvement.

It must be, because the opposite -- arguing that China shouldn't be allowed to host the Olympics because of its poor human-rights record -- is indisputably political.

And that initial economic and political decision has forced Rogge into either making the political decision to withdraw the Olympics or making the political decision to defend China, which is what he's chosen to do. He told the AP he disputes the claim by human-rights groups that the situation in China has deteriorated since 2001.

"I believe the Games have advanced the agenda of human rights," he said. "Is the situation perfect? By no means. Has it improved? I'm saying yes. Is the glass half full, or half empty? I'm saying half full."

How is it not a political statement to say the glass is half-full in China? Ask the people on any street corner in Lhasa if the glass is half-full. They'd probably be afraid to talk to you, but if not, you might find some healthy disagreement with Rogge's position amid the bullets and tear gas.

"We cannot deny one-fifth of mankind the advantages of Olympism," Rogge told the Associated Press. But the Olympics denied South Africans "Olympism" for years because of that nation's apartheid policy. And rightly so. That was politics, but that's the thing: There's no avoiding politics. To stand aside is to take sides.

Refusing to award the Olympics to countries that don't have excellent human-rights records is political. But it's a better way of doing politics than the way the IOC has chosen. At least that way you don't have to sit there and defend a regime as it cracks down on freedoms.

Rogge wants to pretend that the Olympics are above the dirty business of politics. They're not. They're up to their rings in it.

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    King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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