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Games Above All?

The Olympic torch relay began Monday in ancient Olympia, marking the start of the domestic and international circuit that will end on Aug. 8 with the Games’ opening ceremony. This relay is the longest ever planned—lasting 130 days, covering 85,000 miles worldwide and passing through 22 countries.

But there is inescapable irony in the torch-relay theme, “Journey of Harmony.” As the riots in Lhasa and the protest marches all over the world make clear, discord, more than harmony, is so far setting the tone in the host country for this year’s summer Olympics.

A further irony is that when it won the bid to host the Olympics, Beijing promised to improve its record of human-rights abuses.

Sean McCormack, U.S. State Department spokesman warned, “We would also encourage China to make use of the fact that the world is watching this Olympics to put its best face forward.”

And certainly lip service is being paid to the goal of improving the treatment of its citizens. Zhu Yuetao, deputy secretary of the Beijing Olympics sailing competition and a torch bearer, remarked on the torch’s message: “The flame told us that it is time to be a nice host and entertain our guests well, so we must work much harder and hit top gear in run-up to the sailing competition.”

But it’s impossible to see how China can play the role of “nice host”: Lhasa is infiltrated with officers and troops of the People’s Liberation Army. Western journalists have not been allowed into Tibet; those who were already there have been required to leave. Chinese activist Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday, for circulating an open letter titled, “We Want Human Rights, Not the Olympics.”

The government has blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting the violence that now threatens to further tarnish China’s reputation, and claims his support of the Olympic games has been proved false by the uprisings that began in mid-March.

Chinese Web sites, normally heavily censored, have been peppered with inflammatory videos of rioting Tibetans attacking Chinese businesses, while Chinese state- controlled media has openly condemned western coverage of the uprising, claiming the coverage have been grossly distorted. Western Web sites, such as The New York Times site, have been blocked.

And the inflammatory visual rhetoric on Chinese Web sites seems to be working. During a quick search on YouTube I found an array of anti-Tibetan postings in Chinese chat rooms written in response to the images they have seen on TVs and the Internet. And according to the eyewitness of one monk, the police officers seemed more interested in shooting video than in subduing the violence. So online and televised video shows scenes of marauding Tibetans and a Chinese police force apparently exercising restraint.

“Our government should take a bloody suppression on these separatists,” wrote one anti-Tibetan crusader. “We cannot hesitate or be too merciful, even at the cost of giving up the Olympics.”

The Olympics. The recurring issue.

John Hoberman of the University of Texas says these summer games could well become “the most politically tumultuous Olympics in Olympic history.”

Hoberman is an Olympic historian, so there’s no chance he has overlooked the boycotts of the 1980s, the terrorist attack in Munich, and the Berlin Games organized by Adolf Hitler. And in fact, he says the idea that a host country can be transformed by the Olympics—in this case, China improving its record of human-rights violations—is nonsense.

“Pre-Olympic repression is more the rule as opposed to the Olympics promoting liberalization,” he says. “So in this case, the bet on the Chinese as potential liberalizers staging a Games is not looking very good.”

What would it take for China to curb the repression and violence that, right now, is spreading across Tibet? It’s an opportune time for the international community to act.

But it isn’t. Not substantially.

Countries with the biggest Olympic teams don’t want to miss out on the games. These are also the countries with the biggest political heft—the United States and the European Union countries. Germany has assured Beijing it will not boycott the games.

An opinion poll in France showed a majority favored boycotting the games—or at the very least the opening ceremonies.

The word from the White House and State Department is that these are athletic competitions, distinct from the national politics.

Sean McCormack notes, “Politics is not an Olympic sport. We view this as a significant international sporting event. We’re going to treat it as such.”

And so far the White House is as good as its word on this. China’s violent crackdown on the Tibetan protesters has brought no comment from George W. Bush. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged conversation between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

Meanwhile, the torch relay has begun. The plan remains in place to attempt to scale Mount Everest.

“We are ready for the challenge,” Pemba Dondrup, a 29-year-old Tibetan athlete, who made his first ascent to the top of the world’s highest mountain in 2006, told Xinhua news agency. “The unrest in Lhasa last week will not change our plan.”

—Jo Page

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