/Once again a guest column by one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Olympic Movement, Britain’s David Miller. For more than 50 years, the former English footballer has covered the Olympic Games and the sports within it, including 15 years as the Chief Sports Correspondent of The Times of London, with stints at the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph. Author of books on athletics, football and the Olympics, he was Official Historian of the IOC from 1997-2018. His opinions are, of course, his own alone./
Seldom in the history of humanity’s juxtaposed conflict of power, between the immoral and ethical, has it been more acutely presented than this Friday’s Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games at Beijing. Dictatorial governments – not only that of hosts Communist China, but of equally ancient Russia, of Taliban-starved Afghanistan millions, plus the disenfranchised of many other states – will send teams in search, at serious expense, of individual and national sporting prestige: an alternative to power by force. Seventy years ago I attempted to be among the former aspirants.
For four millennia, global or intercontinental dominance has oscillated between the powers of greedy empires: in the thirteenth century Genghis Khan of Mongolia, various Chinese dynasties, the longest of all by Egypt 1556 B.C.-473 A.D.; most recently more modest Britain, 1603-1997. Current alarm is provoked by President Vladimir Putin‘s newly energised but economically vulnerable Russia, post-USSR empire disintegration, threatening to re-conquer Ukraine. Insatiable China’s ill-concealed Pacific territorial ambition and alleged genocide-fuelled ‘re-education’ of Muslims has stoked nursery-like posture by Western politicians, demanding re-assignment of Beijing’s Games: a cop-out by politicians shy of imposing severe financial retribution rather than the evasive ride on the backs of manipulated innocent athletes.
Forty-two years ago, Germany’s Thomas Bach, then defending Olympic team fencing champion from Montreal ’76, suffered the ineffectual German boycott of Moscow ’80 in allegiance to ignorant U.S. President Jimmy Carter‘s impotent gesture. Bach’s experience pitched him into the arena of ‘athlete representation’. A year prior to China hosting the Winter Games, Bach had stressed: “The IOC is not a supra-world government which in cause of upholding Human Rights can strip China of hosting rights – to which the IOC elected them. Boycotts of the Olympic Games on three occasions never achieved anything. If sport can play a role in society, it lies in strengthening co-operation between neighbours, giving everyone, especially the young, hope for a better future.”
So what about Human Rights in China? There are few empires which have gently relinquished power over subordinate territories, though the British, in the evolving headwinds of the twentieth century, attempted to do so with courtesy. Yet how would the British feel if, say, the Isle of Wight or the Isle of Man were ‘owned’ by China, as were Hong Kong and Kowloon by the British from 1841 and 1860 respectively? In protecting their Empire, 1900-1950, Britain engaged in over eighty military ‘skirmishes’ (excluding two World Wars), predominantly protecting the crown jewel of India. They still strategically own the Falklands and Gibraltar with uneasy tolerance from Argentina and Spain. Downing Street now theatrically condemns China’s Human Rights for incarceration of Muslims. Recall the fact that when Britain attended Antwerp’s Olympic Games of 1920, fourth in the medals table, it was less than two years since Westminster authorised the British Army’s crushing of Dublin’s separatist republican campaign, with the death of three hundred and subsequently 4,500 interned. At Melbourne ’56, Britain could hardly protest at Soviet suppression of Hungary’s Budapest uprising, having dejectedly failed in company with the armed forces of France and Israel to retrieve their one-third share of the Suez Canal from rebellious Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. No foreign government attempted to suspend our Olympians.
Over the past year an embarrassing platoon of U.S. politicians have displayed – in concerted demand for Beijing’s Games to be shunted elsewhere – a blindfold perspective of America’s status as the, hitherto, most accomplished industrial and supreme military power: created by domestic immigrant empire … partially dependent upon a slave population, denied with their descendants for much of four centuries the rights of social integration, in parallel with English-culture re-education alongside wantonly abused indigenous tribes. The tide of uneducated U.S. politicians demanded China’s disqualification: only elected as the safe financial option in 2015 when the alternative was little-known former Soviet autocracy Kazakhstan, by today engulfed in civic rioting. America’s presence for the inaugural modern Games at Athens in 1896 came in the recent wake of the final ‘ethnic cleansing’ of three hundred Lakota at Dakota’s Wounded Knee: the final atrocity in a century’s subjugation of folklore heroes revered to this day – witness Jim Thorpe memorabilia. As America’s team departed for Tokyo ’64, few were bothered about Alabama’s Robert Shelton assembling the 50,000-strong “United Klans of America”: KKK ready armed with their flaming crucifix insignia for assassination of black integration freedom fighters across Georgia and Mississippi. All, of course, in the name of honourable Christian faith.
It is Thomas Bach’s conviction that the Olympics are staged, essentially, for the pride and fulfilment of athletes rather than the engagement of fascinated spectators. Inauguration of the modern Olympics occurred when an educationalist aristocratic military officer recognised there was a preference in society’s integration in collective sport as opposed to guns. Bach now has another three years of his presidency to run, and is aware that the IOC has no more power to erase China’s re-education of Muslims than former President Henri Baillet-Latour of Belgium had to counter defenestration of Jews and Blacks by Hitler’s Nazis.
The political/financial cleft stick within which Western governments are trapped, when wishing to challenge China’s Human Rights was neatly defined by Alex Massie writing for Times Newspapers: illustrating the West’s complicity in China’s crucial hosting services, from which economic fortunes are waiting to be made, not least in investment trusts, an expansionist regime across China almost impossible to ignore in other commercial capitals of the world. Bach is aware that, for Olympic survival, some tolerance of ‘the big three’ must be stretched to keep them onside: their departure would fragment the Games. The shared political strength of China and IOC was evident in Bach’s meeting on arrival last week with President Xi Jinping being the first during Covid lockdown with a foreign dignitary for the Chinese leader. China needs IOC endorsement: equally, Bach recognises that the IOC needs the allegiance of the three superpowers to sustain global credibility. Bach’s Opening Ceremony speech on Friday should remind Xi of China’s duty in an integrated contract. Sharing of opportunity by all faiths.