Caught in the Olympic tug-of-war
Local ahtlete reflects on comeptition vs. activism on eve of her third Games

by Anna Thomas

If you’re an athlete going to the Olympics in Beijing this summer, you have plenty to think about. Not just the usual seeds, millisecond finishes and grueling training schedules. In the wake of worldwide protests over China’s human rights record, athletes this year have been caught in the middle of a political tug-of-war.

Elaine Youngs, world-champion beach volleyball player and Durango resident, is one such athlete. After recently earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team, Youngs has faced an onslaught of media attention about her stance on participating in such a contentious Olympics.

Beijing will be her third Olympic games, and she is no stranger to the intricacies of competing in such a publicized event. She remembers the post-9/11 Athens games in 2004, when a heightened terrorist threat affected the mood of the Games. “It kept a lot of people from going, but it turned out to be a great Olympics,” she said.

On the one hand, athletes have the world as their stage if they want to make some sort of social statement. On the other hand, there is Article 51.3 of the Olympic charter, which states rather unequivocally that “no kind of demonstration of political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

Any athlete peddling “propaganda” faces expulsion from the games, as did Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968. After winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter dash, they each raised their black-gloved fists in a show of support for the Black Power movement. This was promptly followed by their being booted out of the Games.

“I don’t think that (the Black Power demonstration) was inappropriate for the times,” Youngs said. “But the Olympics are not about war or human rights. They’re about competition.”

While the brotherhood of humanity and the spirit of competition are touted as paramount elements of the Olympics, Olympic history is rife with political intrigue. It seems that every four years, our illustrious world leaders find a way to use the games as leverage to get a leg up on other countries with which they have taken social and political issue.

In the past century of summer Olympics, there has only been one year in which there were no boycotts. In Barcelona in 1992, the Soviet Union had been dismantled, effectively ending the cold war, the Berlin wall had been torn down, uniting East and West Germany, and apartheid was ended in South Africa, whose athletes were finally admitted to the games after a 32-year ban.

Perhaps the most high-profile instance of politics rearing its ugly head in the Olympic arena was the 1980 62-country boycott of the Moscow games. In his State of the Union address, then-President Jimmy Carter announced, “I have notified the Olympic

Committee, that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I, will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.” As a prelude to the Atlanta games in 1996, Carter asserted that the principal aim of the 1980 boycott was to preserve the safety of athletes and spectators. In what was widely perceived to be a revenge for the 1980 boycott, the Soviet Union and 14 other countries boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles games.

“You work hard for four years, and especially the beach volleyball circuit because it’s a two-year qualification,” Youngs said about the possibility of a U.S. boycott of this year’s Games. “To have that taken away, it’s hard. But I would understand if it was for a good reason.”

So why give China, a country with a much-publicized history of human rights violations, notably in Tibet, the honor and privilege of hosting the Olympics? Youngs questions that logic as well. “We should give more consideration of who we are giving the Olympics to,” she said.

China was denied as host of the 2000 games partly because of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, during which hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, were killed by a Chinese army bent on quashing any dissention from party lines. The successful bid for this year’s Games was due, in part, to the Beijing Olympic Committee’s insistence on the promise of an improved track record of human rights.

In 2001, when the Games were awarded to China, then Internatioanl Olympic Committee Executive Director Francois Carrard said in an interview with NPR, “Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, we close the door and say ‘no.’ The other way is to bet on openness. We are taking the bet that seven years from now, we will see many changes.”

In March, current IOC President James Rogge said of the decision to award the Olympics to China, “We believe that the Games will be a catalyst for change.”

If the March crackdown on protests in Tibet is any indication, not much has changed at all. After what started as a peaceful demonstration led by monks on the anniversary of the 1959 revolt against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, hundreds of Tibetans were killed and thousands detained as the army moved in to maintain order, according to the organization Students for a Free Tibet.

And then there is the issue of Darfur. Amidst the atrocities committed there, China is still on friendly terms with Sudan, even supplying arms to the Sudanese government, who many believe is responsible for ghastly human rights violations.

In the past few months, several human rights groups have sprung up that target athletes going to the games in August. One such group, Athlete Wanted, provides suggestions on how athletes can express their support for Tibetan liberation, from wearing a “Team Tibet” T-shirt to “shaving your head as a symbolic gesture.”

Another group, Team Darfur, describes itself as an “international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan.” Its website asserts that “International athletes uniting in sport creates an ideal forum to promote human rights and peace throughout the world.” The organization has merchandise of all shapes and sizes for sale for the Beijing-bound, from “Team Darfur” emblazoned sweatbands to track jackets.

Athlete Wanted loosely addresses that pesky line 51.3 of the Olympic Charter by listing a quote from Rogge at the top of its “Take Action” page: “Freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It’s a human right. Athletes have it.” But if a winning athlete whips out a string of Tibetan prayer flags on the medal stand, will that be considered freedom of expression or grounds for expulsion? The potential for a grey area at the games this year looms large.

Youngs disagrees with the line of reasoning that places athletes in the same camp with activists. “I think there are a lot of other ways to go about it other than the Olympics,” she said. “I honestly believe the Olympics are a place for athletes who are the best in what they do to compete against each other.”

John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have all urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony of the Beijing games. The European Parliament has also called on E.U. leaders to consider a boycott. Perhaps not a surprise to many, Bush recently issued a statement that he and first lady Laura Bush would in fact be attending the opening ceremony. Soon after, French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced he would also put in an appearance. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown will not attend the opening ceremony.

Youngs, in the meantime, is happy to let the politicians duke it out while she concentrates on her sport. “I never had any second thoughts about going,” she said. “I’m not really trying to make a statement by going or not going. I’m an athlete. That’s why I’m going.” •



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