IOC Needs to Step In Or Perhaps Move On

By Sally Jenkins
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

At this point, the Beijing Games are shaping up as a disaster. The violent police action in Tibet and other events of the past two weeks make one wonder if the Chinese government is fundamentally unfit to host an Olympics. Officials there have violated the basic spirit of the event and reneged on every promise they made to the International Olympic Committee about their willingness to accommodate the world. When anyone publicly tries to hold them to account -- such as our State Department, that "bad-tempered" Nancy Pelosi or the Dalai Lama -- they charge critics with trying "sabotage" the Games. The only event they seem interested in hosting is the Totalitarian Propaganda Back-flip.

To review: Officials have issued an edict forbidding live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square during the Games. This is only the latest piece of good news, to go along with the deaths in Tibet, the jailing of dissidents for merely writing on the Internet, and bulletins about food so contaminated and air so polluted they could harm the athletes.

Still another event spectators apparently can enjoy in Beijing is the 10,000-meter Surveillance Sweep. The U.S. State Department last week issued a bulletin warning that spectators should expect "on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times," even in their hotel rooms. Furthermore, those rooms may be broken into and searched without visitors' knowledge. That will be easy to do: According to the State Department, so many Beijing structures were thrown up so hastily (by forced labor) that they might collapse, and lack basic protections such as emergency exits, fire suppression systems, carbon monoxide monitors, locks or alarms. China called the State Department bulletin "irresponsible" and denied unusual surveillance measures.

The result of all this is that the term "boycott" is being seriously kicked around. Over the weekend, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering refused to rule it out if the Chinese government continues to take such a hard line in Tibet. But a boycott comes with too much collateral damage to athletes and spectators. There is a better alternative: threaten to move the Games out of China altogether. There still is time to send them to another city, one that embraces the spirit of the Games. Sydney could host them; so could Athens.

In the lead-up to Athens four years ago, the IOC got tough with Greek organizers when they didn't show progress on various issues such as stadium plans and security. Why hasn't it applied the same pressure over China's far more significant broken promises? A few stadium construction delays weren't acceptable, but apparently a hundred dead Tibetans are?

The centerpiece of China's bid seven years ago was a promise to make progress on human rights and to open the country to world media coverage. Chinese officials practically begged for the Games and made all kinds of assurances. But instead, the direct opposite has happened -- the Games actually have caused a significant pre-Games crackdown, abuses that range from sweeping arrests of dissidents to the strong-arming in Tibet, where as many as 130 may have died, according to the exiled Tibetan government.

The Olympics aren't supposed to be political. But they aren't supposed to be a force of evil, either.

Up to this point, the IOC has soft-pedaled these events under the rationale that "engagement" with Chinese officials is better than nothing. President Jacques Rogge defends the decision to send the Games to China, saying they are an opportunity to expose a fifth of the world's population to the "Olympic ideal." But it's safe to say the Olympic ideal isn't getting through to the Chinese people. Only the McDonald's billboards are. On Monday, Yang Chunlin was sentenced to five years in prison for "inciting subversion." His crime? He posted on Internet sites under the theme, "We don't want the Olympics, we want human rights."

The party Beijing is preparing to throw bears no resemblance to any recent Olympics: shootings, beatings, jailings, buggings, environmental crimes and paramilitary police flooding the streets? You can pretty much bet that this isn't what Coca-Cola or the other dozen corporate sponsors had in mind when they signed up for the Olympics back in 2001.

These corporations have paid hundreds of millions of dollars for an Olympics that is turning into an international black eye. They're forking over huge fees to a Chinese government that essentially is harming their reputations. Corporate directors are easy targets, but in fact they can be great philanthropists and good international citizens. General Electric has donated $4 million for the relief of Darfur victims, and Coke is involved in clean-water initiatives. Companies such as Johnson & Johnson prize their status as responsible, open, and friendly to customers and the environment.

But at the moment, they appear weak-willed, un-American and complicit in Olympic abuses for the sake of a buck, thanks to the IOC's inaction and, frankly, seeming indifference. "Whatever abuses take place from this point forward is more of an indictment of the international community," says Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch.

One company has a greater interest in the Beijing Olympics than any other. General Electric is both an Olympics sponsor and the parent company of NBC, the network that paid a combined $2.3 billion for the rights to the Athens, Turin and Beijing Olympics -- only to be told it can't broadcast live from Tiananmen Square. As the Games approach, the Chinese authorities appear increasingly nervous at the prospect of any form of public expression. Even an aside of "Free Tibet" by the singer Bjork during a concert drew a stiff response. When an group of American Boy Scouts were supposed to appear at an exhibition baseball game March 15, they were prevented taking the field by police, who also canceled any form of on-field entertainment, including the singing of the national anthems.

"We're proud to be a sponsor and our plans aren't changing," GE spokeswoman Deirdre Latour said. "Our position overall is that the Olympics are a force for good. Of course, we're watching all of the issues carefully."

The attitude of GE is that once the Games begin, the feel-good moments will take over and everyone will forget about the rifle butts and jail cells. "When you're sitting in that stadium and all the countries walk in, you'll see the power of bringing everyone together," Latour said.

That's obviously what the Chinese government hopes, too -- and intends to enforce by censoring NBC.

Will NBC accept the censorship? Latour said, "That's a question for the IOC." GE's role, she says, is merely to fund the Games. "The role of a sponsor isn't take up cause X, Y and Z," she said, "it is to do what we can within our sphere of responsibility."

But corporate sponsors are the IOC -- they pay for 70 percent of its budget -- and the IOC has been unpardonably weak in its dealings with Beijing. The bottom line is that the IOC appears willing to turn a blind eye to human-rights abuses in order to gain entry to a market that represents a fifth of the world's population.

"Throughout history, there have been other Olympics that were contentious," Latour said. Such as? "Well, Germany," she says.

Berlin in 1936? This is the company we want to be in?

The IOC must quit hiding behind the notion that the Olympics are apolitical. It's a fallacy. In a previous era, a stronger IOC banned South Africa from participation for years because of its apartheid policies. Over time, the Olympics have been of arguable value, sometimes corrupt, sometimes on the right side of issues and sometimes on the wrong side. But they've never actually hurt anybody. Until now.

It's time for the IOC to make the Chinese government live up to its word, and to the Olympic charter and spirit. Otherwise, take the Games away from Beijing.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company