Community reflects on Olympics conflicts


The Olympic torch relay has already completed its North American leg, but questions of human rights violations and overbearing Chinese governance remain for Minnesotan athletes and professors.

The Olympics have a history of political involvement in addition to being a worldwide athletic feat. The games have been a forum for politics and international exchange since their birth.

In 1936, they were in Berlin with Hitler reigning on the eve of world warfare.

In 1968, athletes saluted to black power in host Mexico City to support civil disobedience while receiving their medals.

In 1984, when the Olympics were in Los Angeles, Ronald Reagan used that torch relay as an integral part of his re-election campaign, which ultimately resulted in a landslide victory.

“It’s a familiar story of politics and protest,” Doug Hartmann, an associate sociology professor that studies race, sports and protest, said.

So what makes these Chinese Olympics more extreme?

“The stakes are high for China, and a lot of people around the world I think are concerned about China, whether it’s the Olympics or not,” Hartmann said, referring to human rights violations and Western ideals of social order and understanding.

“For the Chinese government, the Olympics are a chance to show how wonderfully China has been developing,” history professor Ted Farmer, who is an expert on Tibet-China relations, said.

But instead of proving economic progress, the torch relay is giving an opportunity for those who’ve been suppressed under China’s communist regime to protest.

“The Chinese have set themselves up. They’ve got this thing going around the world for a couple of months, and everywhere it goes, people protest,” he said.

Tibet and China have a long and sordid history.

“The communist party came to power in 1949, and its main goal was to unify all of China,” he said.

But the Tibetans have a common language and a common religion, so they seek autonomy, Farmer said.

Athletes are frustrated by politics taking the focus away from sports.

“It’s supposed to be athletes representing their country,” Karl Erikson, a University alumnus competing to throw discus in Beijing, said. “(We’re) trying to bring the whole world together.”

Erikson admits it is nerve-racking to know that political extremists could be using the event to further their agendas, and protests can turn violent.

“It’s something that’s supposed to be positive, not a stage for people’s political agendas,” he said.

Although the Olympics are superficially raw athletic competition, in reality, cultural exchange becomes part of international sports, Hartmann said.

“I’m not saying it’s not appropriate to protest or demonstrate,” he said. “The games themselves are not necessarily the problem – in fact they’re the forum we can use to have a dialogue, even a very critical one, about China.”

But he remained cautious of outright support for protests outside of China.

“The kind of knee-jerk desires to boycott and protest without really understanding the complexity and the tremendous change in China is a little bit dangerous,” he said.

Suppressed groups such as the Falun Gong meditation movement – with 70 million members as of 1999 – were also seen as threats to communist China’s stability, said Kirk Allison, director of human rights and health in the School of Public Health.

Allison said he can’t overlook human rights violations, such as the harvesting of organs from Falun Gong members by the communists, first reported in 1999 after mass arrests.

“I would never have suggested awarding it to China,” Allison said.