April 11, 2008

Can Political Activism Go Too Far?

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I don’t know about you all, but I was kind of glad on Monday when Kansas put an end to an NCAA tournament that has wreaked havoc with my bracket like no other in recent memory.
Like much of America, I tend to get caught up in March Madness, obsessed even; it’s a fact. But during such a high-stress period of life, and just in general, I think we tend to forget that there are more “serious” things going on around us — it takes sports to make us sit up and take notice.
Monday afternoon, as a sort of NCAA anti-pregame, I went to see a lecture by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof. According to the outspoken Darfur activist, China has served as the African nation’s “diplomatic protector in the international community,” while being the leading supplier of weapons to the government and the leading importer and developer of Sudanese oil.
Kristof came to Cornell around the same time last year, but not much has changed in terms of a resolution to the conflict. The horror stories keep piling up. In the case of the Beijing Games, which have been dubbed the “Genocide Olympics” in the media, international disapproval of the host country has been simmering for years, escalated by the recent riots in Tibet.
The Olympics are being viewed as leverage to get the Chinese government to “shape up.”
The same day that Memphis threw away the national championship, Hillary Clinton called on President Bush to boycott the Opening Ceremonies of the upcoming Summer Olympics in China. The government in Beijing is falling painfully short of international expectations on the issues of human rights in Tibet and supporting the Sudanese government-sponsored genocide in Darfur.
Not many people realize how ridiculously powerful sports are in the realm of politics.
In ANTHR 347: Anthropology of Sport, I am reminded biweekly just how important sports are to society as a whole. It’s not just something that we do for fun — sports and everyone involved in it (from league rules to the personality of the biggest stars) reflect and shape the values of each society.
When asked if it would help the cause for athletes to use the Olympics as a platform to talk about social issues, Kristof referred to this very idea.
“I think that it works better when [pressure is] coming from individual citizens like [Olympic speed skater, Darfur activist and current Princeton student] Joey Cheek or like prominent basketball players than from governments,” Kristof said. “I think that that has a moral force that goes over better, so I’d love to see more athletes take more leadership on that.”
This question has been bugging me for years. Should athletes, who have so much sway in our society, bother to talk about political issues, especially during an actual event? The policies of the Chinese government seem dangerous and unacceptable to me and many others, but should politics interfere with a tradition like the Olympics?
It’s supposed to be international harmony through friendly competition, right? I thought it was ironic that, when the Olympic torch made its only U.S. stop on the way from Greece to Beijing in San Francisco on Wednesday, the aggressive behavior of the crowds led to the flame being rushed away and the procession cut short. This, in a city thought to be one of the great strongholds of cooperation and tolerance in America! I could see something like this happening in Ithaca.
Though he is not taking any one side in the debate between supporters and critics of China as an Olympics host, Anthropology of Sport professor Steve Sangren, anthropology, commented on the complexity of the issue.
“There are costs and benefits,” he said. “A lot depends on whether one thinks that China has become, in a general sense, a more responsible member of the world community and whether Chinese policies in Tibet and Darfur are sufficient to jeopardize good relations or the Olympics.”
“The best outcome in my view,” Sangren continued, “would be to take advantage of the Olympics to make the Chinese more cognizant than they seem to have been up until now that world opinion disapproves, on the one hand but, on the other hand, not to go so far as to jeopardize the Olympics themselves or to alienate the Chinese [so] that they don’t get the message. That in order to defend their national integrity and pride, they close up and don’t want to think about it.”
On the other hand, it’s not like mixing sports and activism at the Olympics is a new concept. The U.S. and several other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, they gave a Black Power salute on the podium. They were both expelled from the Games.
Both of these acts of protest got very mixed reactions from the sporting and general populations, and I don’t think anyone’s really sure how much good they did. It is the same with current athletes protesting in Beijing.
As a university with high-level athletes of our own, the Red does have a part to play in all this drama.
According to Director of Athletic Communications Jeremy Hartigan, Cornell usually has between six and eight athletes with “legitimate Olympic aspirations,” though he said that number is probably a little lower this year.
No matter how much of a long shot their chances may be, however, at least a dozen Cornell students, alumni or coaches have Olympic trials on their minds right now.
Junior Jeomi Maduka is one of those few hopefuls. Having finished eighth in the long jump at the NCAA indoor championships, the All-American has already qualified for the Olympic trials in Oregon. Maduka thinks that athletes should be allowed to express their political beliefs, but she doesn’t have a personal opinion about this summer’s Olympics in Beijing.
“[Talking with teammates who are also training for Olympic trials, the issue] hasn’t come up,” Maduka said. “Making it to the Olympics is going to be hard enough in itself, so we don’t really have time to worry about [what we would say about political issues].”
I’ll admit that I haven’t talked to very many athletes about this, but the few I’ve talked to are much more focused on the Olympic competition rather than the commotion surrounding the Games. Senior hurdler Aaron Merrill, for one, strongly opposes any boycott.
“Personally, I feel that the Olympics is not a place [for athletes] to talk about politics,” he said. “It’s a place to compete against the rest of the world.”
Then again, even if an athlete did have a strong activist urge, it is often irrelevant what individual athletes believe. In addition to the restrictions placed by the Chinese government on athletes’ work with the media during the Olympics, each sport’s organization has “media trainers” who generally oversee its athletes, according to Hartigan.
This might be one of the few downsides to being a high-profile athlete, in my opinion — that free speech isn’t as free as the rest of us might think.
And these groups will probably be pressuring athletes even more this summer to stay out of the spotlight (when they’re away from the podium, that is).
“The U.S. Track and Field Federation has made some fairly strong statements against athletes [talking about politics],” said men’s track head coach Nathan Taylor. “They’re more sensitive to it [this year] for obvious reasons.”
However, Taylor contrasts track’s more laidback media training with other sports in the summer Olympics. Tennis and golf associations, for example, prepare their athletes rigorously, and basketball’s operation is “totally scripted,” according to Taylor.
In the end, it depends on what you think the purpose of the Olympics is. In international harmony through friendly athletic competition, is the emphasis on the creating idealistic harmony or an international forum for exchange?
In his time as a competitor, wrestling head coach Rob Koll traveled all over the world. One place that Koll visited struck him as a parallel to the current tense relations with China: fellow communist Cuba.
“If politicians had been visiting [Cuba] and talking, the situation [now] would be different,” he said. “And China is so much more of a bigger problem than Cuba.”
Based on these experiences, Koll strongly believes that Olympic athletes should use their prominent positions on the world stage to start dialogue on issues of political or humanitarian significance.
“That’s what they started the Olympics for in the first place, to start communication,” Koll said. “It’s absolutely silly not to use it was a platform [to talk about political issues].”