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How should we feel about the Beijing Olympics?

August 7, 2008

The Olympics start tomorrow! I’m pretty excited, despite the fact that I generally prefer the winter games to the summer ones. I’m a big fan of figure skating, and I think that the luge and curling events have a touch more whimsy than table tennis and the modern pentathlon.

Nevertheless, the Olympics are here. I’ve been hearing about them since 2004, when I spent the summer in China and my students were already talking about their August 2008 travel plans. But the run-up to these games have made me (and most people, I think) feel ambiguous about just how enthusiastic we should feel with regards to the games and to China’s standing as an example of international responsibility. Their attitudes toward Tibet, political dissidents, journalists, the internet, and air pollution leave something to be desired. Still, the Olympics are just so darn exciting. What’s a socially conscious pomp and circumstance-lover to do?

This month’s issue of Foreign Policy magazine tackles the Beijing ’08 question in their monthly “Think Again” column. I have issues with this section of the magazine general, because sometimes it seems that their contributors use the space to be contrary for the sake of being contrary, rather than to explore both sides of an argument. Nevertheless, it serves as a good jumping off point for the debate, if it doesn’t fully consider all sides of the issue.

Some questions I have after reading it:

  • The author, John Hoberman, asserts that the games aren’t apolitical. To this revelation I say, duh. But so what? The games can also serve as a way for countries and athletes to get acquainted in a generally peacefully setting (Munich and Atlanta games aside), which all of those sporting events to get their aggression out. International encounters like this can only be a good thing. Hoberman scoffs at the IOC “fall[ing] back on old clichés about Olympic ‘diplomacy.” It may be clear that the Olympics in themselves do not negotiate peace or guarantee human rights, but they do lay the groundwork for countries gathering on generally equal footing, to talk (sometimes about politics), and enjoy a swim race. That’s where diplomacy starts Hoberman!
  • Also, even if the Olympics are corrupt, political, don’t guarantee human rights, don’t make countries money, etc., so what? Everyone seems to enjoy them, and at the very least it’s an awesome gathering of exceptional athletes. And we get to learn about a new culture from Bob Costas and Matt Lauer (yes yes, NBC is an evil corporate sponsor, but I really like Bob Costas)

What’re you all doing for the games? Are you boycotting watching them as punishment for China’s human rights abuses? Do you agree with the FP article? Let me know what you think! At least one of you.

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