The 85,000 mile Olympic torch relay began today in Greece and is scheduled to pass through 134 cities on five continents, including stops on the summit of Mt. Everest and in the Himalayan town of Lhasa, where Chinese authorities used deadly force to break up pro-independence protests last week. The flame lighting ceremony was briefly interrupted by two pro-Tibetan protesters who ran onto the field during a speech. It was an eventful and troubling week for Olympic organizers. In the wake of the protests in Tibet, which were echoed by pro-Tibetan supports around the world, Chinese officials announced that they will bar all broadcasts of live shots of Tiananmen Square, which is sure to foil many of NBC's plans.
A debate is breaking out over whether to protest the Beijing Olympics, or at least the opening ceremonies, over the Tibet conflict. Predictably, sports officials and corporate sponsors have been quick to insist the Olympics are about the athletes and that politics should not disrupt the Games. It's naive to claim the Olympics are only about the athletes. Throughout their history they've regularly been used as a political tool (not always to bad end, it should be noted) and since the 80s they've very much been about commercialization as well as athleticism.
But at this point there are no real signs that the Games won't go on as planned. The reason: all the key parties are too vested in Beijing's success. The athletes have trained hard for their moment and want to compete; the corporate sponsors not only have invested millions of dollars in the Olympics but they view China is a very lucrative emerging market; and countries like the United States, are financially indebted to China and not looking for a fight. Unfortunately, a few protests are not going to bring these giant wheels to a stop.
It's understandable that the athletes want to compete and the sponsors want a return on their investment, but it will be interesting to watch how the mood of the international community develops. For now, it almost seems as if we've taken for granted China's antiquated human rights policies, their intolerance of a free press and the fact that they occupy Tibet and Taiwan against the citizens' will. Will the Olympics prove, as it often does, that sports, Western culture, and commercialization can roll into town oblivious of its impact, or can these Olympics actually force real change in a country that systematically repels it? --Ryan Quinn