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Olympics could be political mess

If last week's leaked video from a Korean TV crew is any indication, Friday's opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics is sure to be pretty spectacular. Of course, when was the last time the opening ceremony let us down? OK. Calgary '88. But what can you expect from a gray, Canadian afternoon? But the Olympics are more than the pageantry and sport. They have become a lightning rod of politicism and activism, which is a far cry from the original goals the modern games had when they started in Athens, Greece, in 1896. Nowadays, politics is as much a part of the Olympics as the 100-meter sprint. And as the games get underway today in China (the US women's soccer team is losing to Norway as I write this), the politics of communism will be center stage.

When the International Olympic Committee in 2001 awarded Beijing the Games of the XXIX Olympiad, the move was met with skepticism and concern around the world. China has long been known for its deplorable human rights record and conditions. The hope was that the Olympics would help prompt change in China. But as we've seen in news reports for the last few years, what it has brought is people displaced from their to make way for so-called progress, water diverted from farming regions to make sure China's capital has enough to drink during the games and an industrial and automotive shutdown to reduce Beijing's choking smog. China's human rights record continues to be called into question, as well as the impact on the country's growing economy is having on the global economy. Add into all that the fact that journalists are already complaining about censorship, and you're looking at the possibility of a PR nightmare for the next couple of weeks.

Of course, this is far from the first time politics have been part of the Olympics. The 1936 Berlin games were a showcase of sorts for Adolf Hitler and his aryan dreams. Of course, Jesse Owens rained on the Nazi leader's parade by winning four gold medals.

The Mexico City games of 1968 were marred by a political statement by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. As they stood on the podium for the National Anthem after receiving the gold and silver medals respectively, Smith and Carlos each bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved hand in a Black Power salute. The duo were kicked off the team and out of the Olympics for the public protest.

Four years later, the Olympics were back in Germany. There was mild political controversy with the disputed ending of the USA-USSR gold medal basketball game, in which the Americans appeared to have won, only to see the Soviets given another chance by officials to make a full court pass and basket to win. The Americans silver medals still sit unclaimed at IOC headquarters in Switzerland. Of course, Munich will be remembered forever for the kidnapping and murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the hands of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September.

1980 brought an American boycott of the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Communist Bloc returned the favor by refusing to travel to Los Angeles.

Of course, many people don't realize the Olympic movement was on life-support as it headed into the summer of 1984. The financial burden and political climate meant few places, if any, wanted to host the games. But LA and Peter Ueberroth made the Olympics profitable to the tune of $250 million by privatizing them and bringing in big-time corporate sponsors. I still remember commercials for products by now long-forgotten Beatrice Foods running ad nauseum along with Coca-Cola and McDonald's commercials. That corporate involvement has helped fuel the politicism of the Olympics. More money means more people, companies, countries and interests want a piece of the pie. Why else would NBC pay billions of dollars for the broadcasting rights? Because it can sell advertising for some 3,600 hours of Olympic coverage the next couple of weeks on its family of networks. In fact, there is so much American capitalism involved in the Olympics that some big events will happen early in the day in China so they can be aired live in the US.

What will happen in China this month is sure to stir emotions of all sorts. Let's just hope the positive will outweigh the negative; that there will be more of the stories that make the Olympics so enthralling, like the Jamaican bobsled team, the lone athlete from some island country who looks like he might explode with pride as he carries his nation's flag into the opening ceremony. The Olympics have the ability to turn failure into success, like when British Derek Redmond sprinter tore his hamstring during the 400-meter semifinals in 1992, and before he collapsed in tears, he found himself lifted by his father, who had slipped past security and on to the track to support his son. Or Eric Moussambani of Equitorial Guinea, who struggled to finish a 100-meter swim in 2000, and actually won the race when his two competitors were disqualified. Or the Iraqi soccer team four years ago, who won the attention of even the most cynical spectator as they overcame so much to qualify for the medal round.

It is those moments we long for. It is those moments that keep the Olympic movement going and keep us tuning in through all the commercials and political rhetoric.

By: Kevin Wuzzardo


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