Sunday, April 13, 2008

politics and triathlon (part 2) : pressures on the athlete

note: this is part 2 of a 3-part series on the intersection of political protest and triathlon in light of the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

The looming onset of this year's summer Olympics promises to bring with it one of the most controversial games in Olympic history. As much as the international community has tried to defuse tensions, the recent spate of protests during the Olympic torch relay only served to indicate just how high passions are rising in the lead-in to Beijing. Whether or not athletes try to avoid it, politics will be the undercurrent of the 2008 Olympics. All athletes--even in lesser-known sports such as triathlon--are likely to find themselves subject to geopolitical pressures they have so far been able to escape, and will thus face questions they may have never been asked to consider.

Ostensibly, the Olympic movement had among its goals the preservation of a spirit independent of politics. This is codified in the Olympic Charter, particularly in Article 51, which expressly states "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic sites, venues, or other areas" ( Ideally, this was meant to allow focus on Olympic values of international fellowship and advancement of human achievement.

Implementation, however, of these strictures for the Beijing games has produced intense criticism among competing countries. The British Olympic Association (BOA) was recently forced to redraft its contract with its athletes after news disclosures that the document expressly ordered British Olympic athletes "not to comment on politically sensitive issues" (reference: Daily Mail). Belgium and New Zealand also received scrutiny for mandating similar agreements with their athletes (reference: LA Times and Human Rights Torch Relay). The Canadian Olympic Committee warned that it would exclude anyone intent on making political statements in Beijing (National Post). The International Olympic Committee extended these activities by issuing free speech guidelines on
athlete's communications via video, pictures, audio recordings, or even blogs during the summer games (reference: The Australian)

In response to such measures, human rights organizations such as the Council of Europe and Reporters Without Borders requested clarification from participating nations and also China regarding the extent of free speech restrictions on participants at the summer games (reference: The News Observer and International Herald Tribune, and Boxun News and Reporters Without Borders).

Ironically, as much as some countries may try to limit theirs athletes from attempting political protest, those same countries may try to engage in it themselves. The history of the modern Olympic movement is one rife with examples of nations (even if not athletes) engaging in political statements at the expense of the Olympic games. The 1936 games were notorious as being used as a showcase for Nazi ideology (coincidentally, it was the Nazi regime that initiated the staging of the Olympic torch relay--reference: BBC UK). The 1976 Montreal games were boycotted by 30 African nations upset by the inclusion of New Zealand, whose rugby team had recently played in apartheid South Africa. The 1980 Moscow games were boycotted by 62 countries (including the U.S.) to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. China, after the International Olympic Committee recognized Taiwan for the 1956 games, sat out the Olympics until 1980. Sources are plentiful listing national geopolitics in the Olympics, but useful summaries include the following:
The resultant implication from the such conditions is that the issue with the Olympics is not so much free speech, but rather free speech by athletes. That is, based on the ironies outlined here, it appears that political statements are tolerated only if it they are made by the nation-states, and not the individual competitors. Based on the efforts to constrain athlete protests in Beijing, especially in light of the history of nationalistic politics associated with the Olympics, it appears that countries--or at least their Olympic committees--are really only concerned with their own national interests, and expressing those interests via the Olympic games. For them, athletes are tolerated to the extent they are consistent with those interests. This means that their ulterior agenda is less about the Olympic spirit or the Olympic charter, and more about whether they can exploit athletes to further national aims.

As a result, all athletes--including triathletes--going to Beijing must need to be aware of the context in which they will compete. Regardless of their own personal sentiments on exercising political speech, each athlete must recognize that there are external forces with alternative agendas seeking to pressure athletes to comply with differing ideologies. Even as there is an Olympic spirit and an Olympic charter upholding a stage free of politics, and even as they claim to support such an ideal, nations will seek to use the Olympics and Olympic athletes for the sake of their national interests.

Triathletes, because of the youth of the sport, may have largely escaped such larger geopolitical complexities. Even now, for Beijing, many of them may hope that they go to compete with their own individual choice over free speech. However, triathletes should be cognizant of the larger political games being played out around them...and the political interests which will seek to exploit them.

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