Beijing's first event: Political gymnastics

As Amnesty International slams China on human rights, Western journalists get a taste of censorship -- and Olympic excuse making.

Published July 30, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Update 10:40 a.m. EDT On Wednesday, Beijing Olympic organizing committee spokesman Sun Weide confirmed that reporters would not have full access to the Internet, a direct reversal from China's earlier promise, the Associated Press reported.

IOC spokesman Kevin Gosper had told the Hong Kong-based newspaper the South China Morning Post earlier in the day that he'd learned IOC officials had negotiated with the Chinese that some sites would be blocked, and apologized for misleading the press on the issue. But, he said, doing the IOC dance, "I can't tell the Chinese what to do."

IOC president Jacques Rogge must not have known about that agreement either, saying two weeks ago, "For the first time, foreign media will be able to report freely and publish their work freely in China," the AP said.

"What a total humiliation this is for Jacques Rogge," Vincent Brossel, Asia director of the press-freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, told AP. "How can the IOC be so weak and feeble?"

That's what happens when you start out willing to compromise anything.

* * *

The marquee event of the 2008 Olympics may turn out to be political gymnastics, with the International Olympic Committee itself favored to win the gold.

This week, in a tuneup event, an IOC spokesman carefully explained the limits inherent in the word "freedom."

Amnesty International released a report Tuesday slamming China for cracking down on human-rights advocates in the run-up to the Beijing Games, which begin Aug. 8.

"The authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of 'stability' and 'harmony' to the outside world," the report, titled "The Olympics Countdown -- Broken Promises," says.

The group reports that since China promised to improve human rights when it was awarded the 2008 games seven years ago, "Amnesty International has been monitoring the Chinese government's performance particularly closely in four areas with a direct link to preparations for the Olympics and in line with the core principles of the Olympic Charter."

Those areas are use of the death penalty, abusive forms of detention, the arbitrary imprisonment and harassment of "human-rights defenders," which includes journalists and lawyers, and censorship of the Internet.

"Regrettably," the report reads, "since the publication of Amnesty International's last Olympics Countdown report on 1 April 2008, there has been no progress towards fulfilling these promises, only continued deterioration. Unless the authorities make a swift change of direction, the legacy of the Beijing Olympics will not be positive for human rights in China."

As if on cue, Western reporters at the Olympic media center in Beijing complained Tuesday that their access to the Internet was being limited. Service was reportedly very slow, with searches involving the word "Tibet" and various human-rights-related Web sites -- including that of Amnesty International -- among the things that weren't allowed.

China had promised when bidding for the games that it would allow the media the same freedom to cover the Olympics as it's had at previous Olympics. Tuesday's events allowed IOC spokesman Kevin Gosper to step up and perform a tricky routine on the word "freedom."

"The regulatory changes we negotiated with BOCOG [the Beijing Olympic committee] and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the games," Gosper told the Associated Press. "This didn't necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China."

So freedom means freedom to do what you're allowed to do, which is subject to the whim of those granting the freedom. And we can't do anything about that because -- well, that would be political, and the Olympics aren't about politics. Got that?

Gosper did say the IOC would investigate the Internet issues.

But it's clearly the view -- completely apolitical, you understand -- of the Chinese Olympic authorities that issues relating to China aren't germane to coverage of the Olympic Games in China.

That position is right in step with the International Olympic Committee's disingenuous and dishonest position that the Olympics should be above politics.

The Olympics "movement" has been playing that card for the better part of a century. In his excellent book "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World," David Maraniss writes of American Olympic Committee chief Avery Brundage vigorously fighting the idea of an American boycott of the 1936 games in Berlin on the grounds that the Olympics shouldn't be concerned with political matters, such as the Nazi Party's treatment of Jews.

But, Maraniss writes, Brundage was also an anti-Semite who praised Hitler's Germany at a German Day rally in New York a month after returning from Berlin.

Twenty-four years later in Rome, Brundage was the head of the IOC when -- months after the Sharpeville massacre, during which South African police fired on black protesters, killing dozens -- he refused to take seriously protests that South Africa's all-white team did not represent the country, that black athletes had been unfairly excluded.

The IOC informed black advocates that the Olympics were not the time or place to raise their concerns -- as though there were a better time or place to raise concerns about discrimination in the formation of a country's Olympic team -- and that it was satisfied that the athletes had been chosen fairly. Talk of a boycott was ignored. Though in a political reversal, a neat trick for an apolitical event, the Olympics banned South Africa four years later.

Also in 1960, Brundage's IOC, in the interests of keeping politics out of the Olympics, forced the Republic of China to compete under the name Formosa, or Taiwan, a political act designed to keep the People's Republic of China happy.

Now it's Jacques Rogge running the IOC, and he's running the same scam. Out of one side of his mouth he spouts the old IOC line that it is "not a political body, we are not an NGO." Out of the other he justifies the awarding of the Olympics to China on the grounds that the games' presence will improve human rights there.

The latter is a way to make an at-any-costs economic decision to pursue a massive, mostly untapped market sound nobler than what it is. The former allows Rogge to throw up his hands when human rights don't improve as predicted. Hey, politics. Not our bag.

They haven't improved, Amnesty International says. In fact, things are getting worse. When the games begin in a week and a half, we're free not to think about the arrests and harassment and censorship as we enjoy the competition.

That too would be a political act. One that would make us in a small way complicit in the crackdown, just as the IOC is complicit when its spokesman explains how freedom doesn't exactly mean freedom.

By King Kaufman

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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