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by Pierre Laurent

Olympics and Human Rights : Two Struggles

Translated Sunday 13 April 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Sadness and a sense of waste: such are the feelings that the Olympic Torch Relay in Paris has left behind..
The Games will take place in Beijing: that much is certain, but nobody knows yet at what cost, and in what atmosphere.

Sadness and a sense of waste: such are the feelings that the Olympic Torch Relay in Paris has left behind. Since China was elected to play host to the Games, the human-rights situation in this country has fueled protests. A boycott of the Games was several times proposed, but met with little response. The recent violent repression in Tibet has overturned the tables: the Beijing Games have now become the target. And the sentencing of dissident Hu Jia to a three-and-a-half-year prison term by the Chinese authorities last week has again added fuel to the fire. The French athletes and French National Olympic Committee officials, despite being sympathetic with their message in support of human rights, called upon demonstrators to allow the torch to go continue its rounds, so protect its message of peace. Their plea went unheard. Today the case is clear enough: the chaotic route of the torch under police escort has defiled the symbol and hit the Games with full force.

The Games will take place in Beijing: that much is certain but no one knows at what cost or in what atmosphere.

One thing is clear: China cannot remain deaf to the international protests against repression in Tibet. It cannot ignore the call for the gradual recognition of human rights. These are universal needs. Playing host to the Olympic Games and paying due respect to the values enshrined in their charter involve special duties in this respect. Did China think it could evade them? If it did, it was disastrously off in its calculations. Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee’s president, has at last spoken out on the subject: better late than never.

But to do no more would be hypocritical. First, because it’s easy for European, American and Western governments to have two irons in the fire when no one really calls them to account for their weak response and lack of initiative, notably as concerns the situation in Tibet. The French government is cynically weighing up human rights against commercial stakes: that is inacceptable. If France is to talk to China, then the debate must be engaged right now, and on the political field. The Games must no doubt fly the flag for their message of peace and tolerance, but they cannot be used for blackmail or swapped in return for favours.

That is where the debate proves ambiguous. What about the Olympics proper and their future? Unlike some, we do not defend the Games in the name of the commercial interests to which they have become a hostage. Nor do we believe that they can be used as a weapon to advance such and such a position on the world scene. We believe the Games can do a lot on condition precisely that their spirit be defended in a world that is moving further and further away from it. The world we live in is no ideal world, so let’s defend the Olympic utopia, but let’s not make impossible demands upon it: let us keep it alive. To some people, the Games have simply become a farce and the Olympic charter a useless scrap of paper. Conversely, others brandish the Olympic flag and its sporting values only when it suits them, and make no scruple of using a sliding-scale for human-rights depending on which country hosts the Games. Or again, how many have been so deeply concerned about the Olympics’ equally outrageously un-Olympic commercialization as to bow out of the field?

For all those reasons, the passage of the Torch leaves a bitter taste: we believe as much in the spirit of the Games, which we know to be in great danger, as in the universal struggle for human rights. Let us not trample on the former to advance the latter.

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