Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history,” affirmed Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic Games. The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games certainly evoke the name Tibet, cinnamon-robed Buddhist monks and a peace-loving and non-violent Dalai Lama seeking freedom for his repressed people. However, the Chinese authorities have a totally different view; they regard Tibet as a part of China historically and consider the Dalai Lama and his followers obscurantist reactionaries who are against the economic and social progress that the Chinese government has brought to a backward culture over the past 58 years.
According to the authorities in Beijing, all protests by Buddhist monks and other Tibetans result from a conspiracy mounted by the Dalai Lama from his exile headquarters in Dharamsala. According to the Chinese official version, the Dalai Lama led a violent uprising with the help of CIA after Chinese troops imposed rule from Beijing in 1950. The subversion campaign failed, and the Dalai Lama was forced in 1959 to flee to India, where he has lived in exile for half a century. So, for Beijing, the Dalai Lama is less a devout non-violent Buddhist than a secessionist rebel.
But after the crackdown on Tibetan protesters in Lhasa, the worst in the last two decades, Beijing is being watched closely and condemned by the international community, particularly since the Olympics are around the corner. Now, China is worried that protests in Tibet may draw the world’s attention to Tibet, and away from the Olympic Games.
It is true that in theory, the Olympic Games are meant to be about sport rather than politics, but the promotion of the Olympic spirit includes upholding ethics in sport and encouraging the respect of human rights.
The continuing evidence of persecution and human rights abuses by the Chinese government in Tibet cannot be reconciled with the Olympic Spirit set out in Article 1 of the Olympic Charter, which seeks “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”.
The choice of Beijing to host the 2008 Olympic Games, without concerns about the human rights situation, is against the ethics of Olympic Games that are based on “the spirit of humanism, fraternity and respect for individuals which inspires the Olympic ideal”, and which requires “the governments of countries that are to host the Olympic Games to undertake that their countries will scrupulously respect the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter” (IOC Code of Ethics).
It is time now for nations planning to attend the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games to address the Tibetan problem and encourage the Chinese government to honour its Olympic pledges to improve human rights in China. The Olympic Games may be a sportive event; nonetheless, they involve international norms and shared ethical values. Disillusionment with the Olympic Games mirrors the disenchantment with the perceived ethical values of the international community.
Revitalizing the credibility of the Olympic Games requires a reconceptualization of the Games as a platform for building a framework of global ethical values to counter-balance the naked economic and political priorities. In making the Olympic Charter relevant to the 21st century, and in making the Olympics more than just a spectacular sporting event, there is a strong case for the Games to include an ethical imperative of encouraging, promoting and educating people on human rights.
Contrasting the Chinese government’s record on universally defined human rights standards such as the death penalty, torture, freedom of expression and repression in Tibet, the Olympic Charter and Code of Ethics explicitly refer to the concept of human rights and speak of “preservation of human dignity”, “harmonious development of man”, “respect for fundamental universal ethical principles” and “dignity of the individual”.
We should not forget that the goal of Olympism is to place sport everywhere at the service of the moral development of man, with a view to encouraging the establishment of a non-violent society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
It is, therefore, time to begin shaming China—demanding that if the Beijing government is going to host the premier international event, the Summer Olympic Games of 2008, it must be a responsible international partner.
The Chinese leadership must understand that if they refuse to respect human rights in Tibet, then they will face an extremely vigorous, unrelenting, and omnipresent campaign followed by a boycott of the Olympic Games to shame them over this refusal.
There has been a long history of boycott of the Olympic Games. In 1976, 25 African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympics due to the participation of New Zealand which, at the time, still had close ties to the South African apartheid regime. In 1980, America successfully led a boycott against the Summer Olympics held in Moscow that year. It was joined by Japan, Taiwan, West Germany, Canada and 61 other nations.
This summer, the world will go to Beijing to participate in the next Olympics. No significant state has yet decided to boycott the Beijing Games. However, many nations would support their governments if they did call for one. In 1936, Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, expressed scepticism over what he believed were rumours spread by Jewish conspirators about concentration camps in Germany, and he decided that the Olympic Games should go on despite the totalitarian nature of the Nazi regime. Unlike 1936, citizens around the world know what is happening behind the scenes in Tibet.
It is time for all public figures in today’s world to make their voices of dissent heard for those who are denied that luxury in Tibet due to the Chinese repression. It is time to say “No” to the Olympics of shame.
Ramin Jahanbegloo, a political philosopher, teaches at the University of Toronto. His latest book is The Spirit of India: Essays, Penguin Books India, 2008. Comment at email@example.com