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2007 08 10
Off the Wall

Back in 2001 Toronto lost its bid for the 2008 Olympics to Beijing.

Many blamed the loss on Mel Lastman’s clowning. Like when Mel, before visiting Kenya to promote Toronto's Olympic bid, joculated, “I just see myself in a pot of boiling water with all these natives dancing around me.” Which, despite Mel’s abject apologizing, prompted Olympic Committee member Alpha Ibrahim Diallo of Guinea to raise concerns about fundamental respect for human rights in Canada.

Mel’s clowning entirely aside, the bond linking Olympic Games to protest and human rights is no joke. Never has been, never will be. Yes, it’s a fundamental principle of the Olympic Games that politics play no part whatsoever in them. But we know far better. Just how fundamentally that principle is not practiced.

Can we remember anything about the 1968 games more vividly than Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ gloved fists raised at the podium? Should we remember anything about the 1972 Munich Olympics but terrorism – when murdering innocent civilians was introduced to the world stage? The 1976 Montreal Olympics were boycotted by African nations protesting a New Zealand rugby team’s visit to South Africa. Jimmy Carter got Machiavellian and kept the United States out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Then, in 1984, the Soviet Union got Orwellian and forced Eastern European nations away in boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Everybody knows, remembers and keeps Olympic protest scoring. The Olympic Committee knew all about the link to human rights when, after awarding the 2008 Games to Beijing, Committee member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway said, “The message was clear: We wanted to see the Olympic Games in China. We think this will open up China.” And while so passionately seeking to be awarded the 2008 Games, of course China knew there were bonds linking Olympics particularly with human rights protest. On having the 2008 Games awarded, Chinese sports minister Weimen Yuan even mentioned, “..not least, progress in the human rights cause.” Almost sounded like he was making promises, when he said “.. we will continue to open ourselves wider to the outside world and carry out more reforms.”

Terrific. Minister Yuan wasn’t lying. China, at however glacial pace, does continue to open and carry out more reforms. Apace, reforming does proceed. For instance, after the dramatic “FREE TIBET” banner unfurling at the Great Wall of China, the two Canadian and four accomplice members of Students for a Free Tibet were only interrogated for 36 hours prior getting deported. Only interrogated. Not tortured. Not shot. Not disappeared – no longer than 36 hours, anyway. Just interrogated – not permanently disappeared. And that’s huge progress from past decades. Progress so huge, one might feel a little glad for Toronto losing its 2008 Olympic bid to Beijing. Glad for Megacity Mel’s clowning, for Toronto’s loss – for the contribution to China’s glacial opening and reforming.

It really is terrific. How the Chinese government hasn’t over-reacted. What’s absurd – not in the least terrific – is how Globe readers over-reacted. How the great majority of readers reacted in rage. Makes no sense how ninety percent of readers commenting the Globe’s August 9th article – Tibet protesters cut off from Canada for 36 hours - seemed so enraged. Like Dr. G Mobile, who wrote: “Why do the Chinese let these folks in their country? Frankly I find the whole thing embarrassing.” Or Bill M, who wrote, “Did they expect luxury accomodations [sic] after the arrests?” Or Just a Lucky So-and-So, who wrote, “Cut off for 36 hours, you say? Lucky that was all that was cut off!” And those were just the first three. Got worse from there.

Peter Li, commenting on a related Globe article – Tech-savvy pro-Tibet protesters get message across - wrote:
.. this dirty game of yours of trying to protest China. But you never think that if you do a stunt like this, China won't do the same thing to you? They can say they want Quebec to separate from you and your country will literally collapse.
Perhaps Mr. Li has never heard of Quebec referenda. When the people of Quebec get together and vote whether to separate or to remain Canadian. And certainly – should Quebec ever choose to separate, it would be a sad day for what remains of Canada. Sad indeed. Not a bloody massacre, though.

And Tibet, unlike Quebec, used to be a sovereign nation until 50 years back. What if Tibetans continue to identify as a distinct people? Since Mr. Li – and so many other readers commenting at the Globe – have drawn the comparison to Canada. How about seriously considering the Canadian example? All the examples of Quebec referenda.

How about it, Mr. Li? What would happen if the people of Tibet had themselves a referendum whether they wanted to be Chinese or not? Are not all distinct peoples entitled to independent nations? Are not the people of Tibet entitled to some say in the matter?

More like crystal than finest China what would happen. Wouldn’t get nowhere near any referendum whether to be or not to be Chinese. Wouldn’t even get to calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Just as reported on August 3rd in the Globe – Scores of ethnic Tibetans arrested in China: reports. When literally scores of people got arrested in one Tibetan area for daring to call a return of the Dalai Lama.

Never mind. Most deranging about readers’ comments was how misdirected their rage grew not only at the Canadian protesters – but at all Canadians and Canada as a whole. As Mr. Li put it,
You people have no respect for other type of people and you're actually the worst country for human rights… Now you people are talking about how other countries have no human rights? This is why I don't like Canadians. They keep on trying to pretend their like the king of the world and trying to get attention from China while China don't care about you at all. They don't want to do any business with you and you're nothing but trouble like this situation. This is why I'm saying China should just cut diplomatic relationship with your country cuz your nothing but trouble… Regardless of you people doing this, it ain't gonna benefit one thing cuz it ain't gonna stop China from rising and there's nothing you people can do about it.
Hopefully, Mr. Li and the apparently many others enraged at Canada will take note – as the Chinese government no doubt has – of the traditional bond linking human rights protesting with the Olympics. More importantly, Canadians neither resent nor fear China. We recognize both the increasing economic ascendancy and the continuing – however glacial – reforming of China.

The real trouble when it comes to the Tibet issue is not that we look down on China. We totally don’t. The trouble is how everyone – not just Canadians – looks up to Tibet. We look up to Tibetan culture. Beyond even issues of rights to which distinct peoples are entitled, we can’t forget Tibet. Because Tibetan culture has long since come to represent an ideal. It stands for how understanding, perspective and wisdom may transcend the materialism into which so much of our world has fallen.

That’s why we can’t forget what Tibet stood and continues to stand for. Why we keep hoping for Tibet to stand once again.

[Peter Fruchter is a part-time faculty member in the Division of Humanities at York University. He writes about the nature of truth (and truths of nature). His Culture and Multiculture series appears regularly here at Reading Toronto.]

Image of International Day of Action for Tibet march in Toronto, August 2007. This photograph was taken by Gavatron and is used via Creative Commons license.
[email this story] Posted by Peter Fruchter on 08/10 at 10:35 AM

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