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Jewish World Review June 27, 2001 / 6 Tamuz 5761

Philip Terzian

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Sprinting toward China


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WISELY, I think, the Bush administration has chosen neutrality in the war over China's bid to host the 2008 Olympics. In a sense, of course, this constitutes a tilt toward Beijing and, perhaps, a blow to the prospects of Toronto, Osaka and Paris.

There is considerable opposition to rewarding the People's Republic of China with the Olympic Games, and that opposition (which is largely bipartisan) had lately been gathering force. Three California members of Congress -- Democrats Tom Lantos and Nancy Pelosi, and Republican Christopher Cox -- have sponsored a resolution opposing Beijing's bid, and in testimony on Capitol Hill last month, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged their argument. The choice of Olympic venues, he said, "is an independent judgment by the International Olympic Committee -- although I am sure they would be interested in what the Congress might say, or the administration might say."

Realizing that he had just attached the administration's position to the congressional resolution, General Powell quickly caught himself. "No decision has been made about what the U.S. might, or might not, do with respect to the Olympics," he said. But now a decision has been made, and it is clearly antithetical to the Lantos resolution, which is losing steam.

While the administration will take no official position on whether the Olympics ought to be held in China, it has made its unofficial attitude clear. A "senior State Department official" told The Washington Post this week that awarding the Games to China "might even be a positive thing and give China 'a powerful but intangible incentive' to improve its human rights performance and to exercise restraint toward Taiwan."

This is, to be sure, the triumph of hope over experience. It is the language that is routinely employed to argue in favor of increasing economic ties with China, or putting human rights behind commercial gain. It is possible, of course, that the People's Republic might start treating its citizens with dignity, or change its mind about Taiwan's status as a "renegade province." But it is equally possible that the People's Republic would regard the Olympics award as a victory, as a political vindication of its status among nations, and act accordingly.

The question, therefore, is what difference does it make. The modern Olympics, which began in 1896, were intended to exalt sport over politics.

But from the very beginning athletes have been divided by nationality, and even virtuous countries (such as our own) show little restraint in waving the flag. The Olympics are political in spite of themselves. Host countries are chosen for manifold reasons, some of which have something to do with their governments. Apartheid South Africa was excluded from the Games while East Germany and Cuba were welcome and prospered. When Jimmy Carter was casting about for some means of expressing his displeasure at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he settled on a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow. (Moscow and its satellites, in turn, shunned the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.)

Hanging over all this is the shadow of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. According to Tom Lantos, "History shows that Olympic hosts gain immeasurably in international esteem. Hitler basked in the international limelight the Games afforded him."

Yet as even Congressman Lantos must know, that is not exactly true. There is no question that "Hitler basked in the international limelight," and took considerable pains to put on a good show. But, if anything, the Games detracted from whatever "international esteem" the Nazis enjoyed in 1936. Instead of focusing on the achievements of the Hitler regime -- low unemployment, autobahns, etc. -- the foreign press tended to emphasize its sinister character, and lampooned the doctrine of Aryan racial superiority. In any event, the dramatic victories of the black American sprinters Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe left the Germans chastened; and 65 years later, that is all anyone remembers about the Olympics in Berlin.

It is worth noting, as well, that politics governed the choice of Berlin. The International Olympic Committee had settled on Germany in 1931 as a means of encouraging the struggling Weimar Republic. Two years later, of course, the Weimar Republic had been supplanted by the Nazis; but the Olympics still took place in Berlin as planned.

In 1936 there was considerable debate about whether American athletes ought to participate in "Hitler's Games," and many of the themes sound familiar today. The Olympic ideal, it was said, would be stained by any association with Hitler, and the Nazi regime should be scorned, not rewarded. And yet, if that argument had prevailed, Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe would never have gone to Berlin, and German runners would have ratified Hitler's racial theories.



JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.

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