Olympics of shame

Ramin Jahanbegloo
9 April 2008

"Holding an Olympic Games means evoking history", affirmed Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games. The Olympic games scheduled for Beijing on 8-24 August 2008 certainly evokes the name "Tibet", including its cinnamon-robed Buddhist monks and a peace-loving and non-violent Dalai Lama seeking freedom for his repressed people (see Donald S Lopez Jr, "How to think about Tibet", 31 March 2008).

Ramin Jahanbegloo is professor at the University of Toronto. Among his books in English, French and Persian are

Conversations with Isaiah Berlin
(Phoenix, 2000)

Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity (Lexington Books, 2004)

India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India
(Oxford University Press, 2007) However, the Chinese authorities have a totally different view; they regard Tibet as a historical part of China and consider the Dalai Lama and his followers as obscurantist reactionaries opposed to the economic and social progress that the Chinese government has brought to a backward culture since it established control in 1950.

The official Chinese version of recent history is that, after Chinese troops imposed rule from Beijing fifty-eight years ago, the Dalai Lama led a violent uprising with the help of the CIA. 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 officials, the Dalai Lama is less a devout non-violent Buddhist than a secessionist rebel. The authorities in Beijing attribute all protests by Buddhist monks and other Tibetans to a conspiracy mounted by the Dalai Lama from his exile headquarters in Dharamsala, India.

But today, after the crackdown on Tibetan protestors in Lhasa - amid the most tumultuous events in the region since 1987 - Beijing is being closely scrutinised and broadly condemned by the international community, particularly since the Olympics are around the corner (see Wenran Jiang, "Tibetan protest, Chinese lens" [7 April 2008]). Now China is worried that protests in Tibet may draw the world's attention to Tibet and away from the Olympic games. The Tibetan issue is now on the minds of all people across the world.

A higher aspiration

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 respect for 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."

Also by Ramin Jahanbegloo in openDemocracy:

"America's dreaming" (30 August 2004) - an exchange of letters with Richard Rorty, part of our "Letters to Americans" series

"Iran's conservative triumph" (28 June 2005) - contribution to a post-election symposium with seven other Iranian writers

"Richard Rorty: living in dialogue" (20 June 2007)

"The modern Gandhi" (30 January 2008) The choice of Beijing to host the 2008 Olympic games, without concerns about the human-rights situation in China, already transgresses the ethics of a tournament 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" (see the International Olympic Committee's code of ethics).

It is time now for nations planning to attend the Beijing Olympics 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 sporting event; nonetheless the event involves international norms and shared ethical values which are the foundation of global ethics. Disillusionment with the Olympic games mirrors the disenchantment with the perceived ethical values of the international community.

Thus, to revitalise the credibility of the Olympic games requires a reconceptualisation of the games as a platform for building a framework of global ethical values to counterbalance current naked economic and political priorities. In making the Olympic charter relevant to the 21st century, and in making the Olympics more than just a spectacle of sport and commerce, there is a strong case for the games to include an ethical imperative of encouraging, promoting and educating human rights.

The Olympic charter and the Olympic code of ethics explicitly refer to the concept of human rights; they speak of the "preservation of human dignity", the "harmonious development of man", "respect for fundamental universal ethical principles" and "dignity of the individual". The Chinese government's record on universally defined human-rights standards such as the death penalty, torture, freedom of expression and repression in Tibet stand in clear contrast to these principles (see Tubten Khétsun, Memories of Life in Lhasa Under Chinese Rule [Columbia University Press, 2008]).

Also on the China, the Olympic games and Tibet in openDemocracy:

Li Datong, "Beijing's Olympics, China's politics"
(22 August 2007)

Gabriel Lafitte, "Tibet: revolt with memories" (18 March 2008)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom,
"The perils of forced modernity: China-Tibet, America-Iraq"
(27 March 2008)

George Fitzherbert, "Tibet's history, China's power"
(28 March 2008)

Dibyesh Anand, "Tibet, China, and the west: empires of the mind"
(1 April 2008)

Robert Barnett, "Tibet: questions of revolt" (4 April 2008)
t should not be forgotten that the goal of "Olympism" is everywhere to place sport at the service of the moral development of man, with a view to encouraging the establishment of a non-violent society concerned with the preservations of human dignity. It is, therefore, time to begin shaming China - demanding that if the Beijing government is going to host this premier international event, they must become responsible and accountable international partners (see Human Rights in China, Incorporating Responsibility 2008).

The right to say "no"

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 the boycott of the Olympic games to shame them over this refusal. Such boycotts have a long history. In 1976, twenty-five African countries boycotted the Olympics held in Montreal due to the participation of New Zealand (which at the time still had close ties to the South African apartheid regime). In 1980, the United States led a boycott against the Olympics held in Moscow, in protest against the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (the US was joined by Japan, Taiwan, West Germany, Canada and sixty-one other nations).

So far, no significant state has turned talk of a boycott of the Beijing games into a firm commitment to do so. However, many people around the world would support their governments if they did call for one. In 1936, the totalitarian nature of the Adolf Hitler regime was already evident to those who allowed Berlin to host the Olympics in what became a Nazi propaganda showcase; Avery Brundage, then president of the United States Olympic committee (later of the International Olympic Committee as a whole), responded with scepticism to reports of concentration camps in Germany, and scorned what he regarded as rumours spread by Jewish groups.

Today, citizens around the world know - as many did not know in 1936 - what is happening behind the scenes in Tibet, and what has happened during the last six repressive decades. It is time for all the world's leading public figures to make their dissentient voices heard on behalf of those in Tibet who are denied this selfsame basic right of speaking out in protest. It is time to say "no" to the Olympics of shame.


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