Friday saw the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Athletes from 204 countries paraded through the Birds Nest Stadium proudly carrying their national flags, delighted to be representing their country. This is where we hit a problem for those people who are adamant that politics and sport cannot mix and that sport should rise above global realities.
Since the birth of the modern Olympic games in 1896, the event has always been affected by international events and, if anything, the games have shone a light on global problems and provided an informal environment for diplomatic discussions. Unfortunately it seems that events have conspired in 2008 to make this a core role of the Beijing Olympics.
If the images from South Ossetia are even vaguely accurate then it seems that Russia has used the games as an opportunity to intimidate and harass their neighbour Georgia while the world was distracted. Both countries are represented in Beijing and we cannot ignore that Russian forces are bombing Tblisi as I write.
On Sunday we saw two representatives from the Russian and Georgian teams embrace on the podium as a sign of solidarity against the fighting. The Georgian team have offered to withdraw to support their country. Nino Salukvadze of Georgia, who yesterday won a bronze medal, said: ‘There should be no hatred among athletes and people. Politicians should straighten out the situation today and if they don’t, we’ll have to get involved’.
The international community now need to step up to the plate. The games provide a safe space for international athletes but at the same time they could and should provide an arena for international dialogue during this very tense period for eastern Europe. While some will disapprove of this approach, it is not unprecedented.
In 1956, we witnessed the first national boycotts of the games. Three countries boycotted the Melbourne Olympics in protest at the Russian response to the Hungarian Uprising while a further four boycotted as a response to the Suez crisis. Boycotts due to international events continued throughout the rest of the 20th century and we have seen several calls for a boycott of the current Olympics since Beijing was awarded the games in 2001.
The Olympics have not only provided a platform for sovereign countries to highlight disagreements by means of boycott but individuals have also used the games to publicise political movements. In 1936, Hitler used the games as an opportunity to celebrate his achievements and launch Nazism and his Aryan ideal to the world. Jesse Owens was able to make a mockery of Hitler by winning a gold medal in the long jump, securing his place as a black Olympic Champion. In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos brought the horrors of segregation and racism to the international stage by giving the Black Power salute from the podium.
Even this year, over 40 international athletes have used their positions to condemn China’s human rights record and in turn call on the Chinese President Hu Jintao ‘to protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion in your country, including Tibet’. These activities raise the profile of an issue without hindering or harming the Olympics.
Russia should not be expelled from the games – rather the international community has an obligation to use this an opportunity to resolve the crisis. Russia should not be allowed to use the Olympics as a protective shield.
Watching the athletes compete over the coming weeks will be a pleasure. We are watching people from across the world achieve their personal dreams and goals. But we must remember that these are people with their own views and ultimately they are there representing their country. And while the Olympics should be about sport, for the audience it is also about national pride, which makes it political even at its core.
Participation in the Olympics should be a privilege and honour not just for the athlete but also for their home nation. Russia cannot be allowed to forget that. We therefore should use this opportunity to promote the ethos of the Olympic spirit across national borders. My thoughts are with both the people of South Ossetia and Georgia. And my hopes rest with Team GB – and especially the Burtonian representative Tracey Hallam.
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