Beijing Olympics Torch Relay in London


On Thursday afternoon Josh Neicho from Letters at the Evening Standard asked me for a contribution about the torch relay arriving in London. I was waiting for a flight to Barcelona, but cobbled together something for them. Pasted below are the published version and my full submission. All are free for quoting: Evening Standard published version

"If athletes are thinking of protesting this weekend, as the Olympic flame arrives in London, first they have to decide what they are protesting about - Tibet or wider human rights issues - then, on how their politics square with Olympic values.

There is an argument that the Olympics should be untainted by confrontational politics. In support of this view, one could point to the vast amount of soft diplomacy done at the behest of the Olympic movement: such as the Olympic Truce, which through the UN calls on heads of state to cease conflicts during the competition, or Olympic Solidarity, which enables the participation of many athletes who might not otherwise compete due to financial difficulties or political circumstances.

Athletes are and should be free to express themselves about global issues without intervention from any Olympic authority. They should, however, be cautious about their celebrity being co-opted by well-meaning but aggressive campaigning teams seeking to use them for their own benefit. They should gain inspiration from the quiet protests of Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico in 1968; but recall their actions led to their expulsion from the Games.

The arguments used to support demonstrations against the Beijing Olympics, furthermore, might also be advanced by protesters against the 2012 London Games, on account of Britain's involvement in the Iraq war and attacks on civil liberties during the "war on terror".

Hypocrisy is rife on this issue, which is why the IOC prefers to portray itself simply as a sporting organization, even though it is clearly more than this."

Dr Andy Miah, andymiah.net

My full submission

The Olympic torch passing through London this weekend

"If athletes are thinking of protesting this weekend, as the Olympic flame relay arrives on its long route to Beijing, then they have first to decide what it is they are protesting about. The interventions - plural and different - at the lighting ceremony in Olympia two weeks ago were characterized as pro-Tibet protests, yet the Reporters without Borders, while Tibet sympathizers, are predominantly concerned about the freedom of Chinese journalists within the mainland. It was the pro-Tibet protestors in the village of Olympia later that day that made particular reference to Tibet. So, will their protest be about media freedom of local or international journalists, or the various campaigns that have been launched in relation to Darfur, via the 'Genocide Olympics' strap line? Alternatively, will the protest be about the people of Tibet and the state of unrest that has been evident?

Their next decision should be about how their politics square with Olympic values. On one view, protest and activism are an integral element of the Olympic ideals, since they can contribute to the achievement of greater intercultural understanding, the core business of Olympism outlined in the Olympic Charter. On another view, the Olympic ideals should be untainted by this sort of confrontational politics, for its potentially destructive potential. Proponents of such views point to the vast amount of soft international diplomacy, which is evident below the surface of the Olympic Movement. For example, the Olympic Truce draws on the IOC's relationship with the United Nations to call upon Heads of States to cease conflicts during the 16 days of competition. Alternatively, Olympic Solidarity has enable the participation of athletes from a vast number of countries that might otherwise be unable to take part, due to financial difficulties or political circumstances. Consider also the moment that North and South Korea entered the stadium at the Opening Ceremony of Sydney 2000.

The fact remains that in 100 years of modern Olympic history, there has never been a non-politicized Games. Yet, each incarnation has had to ensure that the Games are not too political, so as not to disrupt the entire Olympic programme. It is clear that athletes do not want this and the recent calls to boycott only the opening ceremony by Kate Hoey - a politics that gestures towards issues of political sensitivity - is a sensible route for those with strong views on this subject.

Athletes are and should be free to express themselves about global political issues without intervention from any Olympic authority. They should be cautious about their celebrity status being co-opted by well-meaning, but aggressive campaigning teams who seek to draw on an athlete's name for their own good, some of which might have sponsorship tie ins that conflict with the Olympic sponsorship programme. They should gain inspiration from the quiet protests of Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico 1968, but recall that their actions led to expulsion from the Olympic Games. Perhaps this is not too great a sacrifice for some athletes, but for others, it would be devastating and perhaps limit their capacity to capitalize on their Olympian status for subsequent purposes.

Finally, one might observe that arguments used to support protests of the Beijing Olympics due to China's political interventions or lack of, might also be used to protest London's Games in 2012, on account of its maneuvers in foreign policy, the Atlantic Alliance and assaults on human rights that have been justified in the context of a war on terror. In short, if athletes protest China, then they should consider whether they are also willing to protest London and, if not, whether this tells us anything about why protest and the Olympics enjoy a very difficult relationship. Hypocrisy is rife on this issue, which is why the IOC prefer simply to remain single minded about being just a sporting organization even if we know they are not."

Dr Andy Miah Reader University of the West of Scotland