The Olympics Are Getting Political
The Olympics Are Getting Political
A nation allegedly attempting to kidnap its own athlete and another incensed at its political rival getting attention. For all the pretense that the Olympic Games are about sport and not politics, Tokyo 2020 has abruptly reminded us that such a divide is impossible.
One of the most dramatic turns happened Sunday night, when Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya sought the protection of Japanese police at Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Days before, she had complained on Instagram about how her country’s team was managed. That apparently prompted officials from Belarus to haul her to the airport and attempt to send her back home, despite being scheduled to compete the next day. She neither got on the plane nor turned up for her heat in the 200 meters.
Meanwhile, the badminton men’s doubles ended in upset and vitriol. The seventh-ranked pair of Wang Chi-Lin and Lee Yang beat former world champions Li Jun Hui and Liu Yu Chen in two straight games for the gold medal. The problem: The victors are from Chinese Taipei, better known as Taiwan, and the losers from China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, despite its separate government. Nationalistic attacks from Chinese netizens ensued, likely inflamed by Lee taking to Facebook to dedicate his win “to my country: Taiwan.”
Throughout its 125-year existence, the modern Olympic Games have preached neutrality and putting sport above politics, attempting to maneuver through brutal international realities. It’s been far from successful. Carrying on with the Berlin Games in 1936 as the Nazis promoted racial supremacy remains the most shameful case. The Games were also stunned when Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed in Munich in 1972. The IOC navigated the Cold War for almost 40 years, but couldn’t broker a detente when the US and allies boycotted Moscow in 1980 and the Soviets retaliated at Los Angeles in 1984.
But the organization can also live up to its high-minded expectations, such as maintaining a quarter-century ban on South Africa over apartheid. When the Berlin Wall collapsed and Soviet republics were cut adrift, the Olympic Movement offered an umbrella for the collection of newly independent nations to compete. In 2016 and again this year, a refugee team was formed for athletes dispossessed by war and strife.
Even so, the Olympics tries to keep this non-interference humanitarianism within bounds. For example, Rule 50 of the IOC Charter states that: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
The Olympics need to ease up a little. Athletes can now express their views in defined ways, such as at press conferences and prior to competition. Among the first was New Zealand’s women’s soccer team, which took a knee to advocate for social justice at the start of its first match against Australia.
The IOC still remains adamant that protests can’t occur on the medals podium, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power fist-raising at Mexico City in 1968. Despite this edict, Saunders went ahead and US. Olympic officials subsequently called the gesture “respectful,” while World Athletics President Sebastian Coe has previously said he doesn’t anticipate sanctioning demonstrations, The AP reported.
While social justice is at the top of mind for many, organizers and audiences shouldn’t be surprised that the harsh dictatorship of Belarus and Taiwan's struggle would also find a spotlight. The Olympics reflect the world and the athletes coming from it. They tend to have an acute sense of equity, building their lives around abiding by the rules of fair competition. Yet the oppressed often remain so precisely because layers of laws and customs — many built over decades or centuries — stifle their freedom and ability to progress.
Belarus has a record of flouting rules. President Alexander Lukashenko deployed his security services to stamp out protests after a contested re-election last year that the opposition said was rigged. In May, the country effectively hijacked a commercial jet flying over its airspace to seize a dissident journalist. The IOC already had the country on its radar, announcing in March it would not recognize Lukashenko's son Viktor to succeed him as president of the national Olympic committee, noting that the leadership “had not appropriately protected the Belarusian athletes from political discrimination.”
So now, an athlete who dared to speak up finds herself seeking help in a drama reminiscent of Cold War sporting defections. Although it has little power to offer asylum, the IOC has prestige and status and quickly tweeted that it was in contact with Tsimanouskaya and that she was safe. Within hours, Poland was among the nations indicating a willingness to provide assistance.
A different long-term scuffle is playing out between Taipei and Beijing. Taiwan’s place in the international community has been on a slow boil for decades. At the Olympics, Taiwanese compete under the moniker Chinese Taipei and a special flag that doesn’t fly at home; Chinese athletes generally accept the realpolitik and get on with the business of sport. Athletes from Taiwan probably sensed that same overbearing reality too, especially when China’s national anthem played after Hong Kong won its first gold medal since Britain handed over its then-colony to Beijing. It was a reminder of the now-collapsed promise of one country, two systems.
According to the movement’s charter, the Olympic Spirit “requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Let’s start by understanding the struggle athletes face to get there.