Monday, April 07, 2008

The Olympics and Politics

Like most relatively well adjusted people I am not in the slightest bit interested in athletics. The thought of spending several days watching people trying to jump slightly higher than each other, run slightly faster than each other, or throw something slightly further than anyone else is not exactly my idea of thrilling entertainment. I can't understand why anyone would take it seriously. I mean, fine, if it's just done as a bit of a laugh, involvement in pointless competitive activity can pass the time quite nicely (late night Mario Kart- now that was fun)- but why on earth would anyone want to spend their time watching these fools gurning, and grimacing, heaving and weeping as they try to beat one another at running quite fast, as if it's something really important?

Nevertheless, I have been quite interested in all this torch running business (it's quite reminiscent of the primitive football they used to play in English villages isn't it?). I've been heartened to see the mass protests in London and Paris against Chinese repression in Tibet. There has been some debate on other Left blogs about the rights and wrongs of the Free Tibet campaign - some of it enlightening and some of it downright bizarre. I'm quite aware that Tibet before the Chinese invasion was never the mystical, 'spiritual' utopia of the Hollywood liberal imagination, where wise, enlightened monks lived in some Idyllic pre-Industrial harmony with contented peasant folk and easy-going mountain yaks. It was, apparently, a backwards feudal nightmare in which a small, parasitical religious elite lived off a fat surplus extracted from peasant labour. Nevertheless, it should go without saying that Chinese Imperialism is just as unpleasant as any other kind, and that if the people of Tibet want to be free of Chinese oppression they have every right to demand it without being shot down in the street by the trained thugs of the grotesquely misnamed 'People's Liberation Army'.

I've been irritated by the reactions to the protests of those athletes and celebrities taking part in the torch carrying. Amongst the various banalities you would expect to hear from someone who has devoted their life to running round and round really really fast, (almost always introduced with the words 'Well, as an athelete...' - as if being an athlete provides them with a clearer perspective) you will usually hear them say that they think that sport and politics should be kept apart. The other thing they say (including, I'm afraid, Konnie Huq, of whom, shall we say, I'm quite a fan) is that they decided to do it because they're big believers in the 'Olympic ideals' and simply hadda. None of this washes.

What are these Olympic ideals anyway? Presumably they include the ideal of being a psychotically competitive bastard and the ideal of having an obsessive fixation on grinding one's opponents' faces into the dirt. For some reason, though, lots of people seem to think that the Olympic ideals are humanistic, internationalist and aim to promote harmony and understanding between nations. Even if this is true, however - if the Olympics do actually help Americans to grasp the fact of their common humanity with Ethiopians, over-riding and dispelling all residual national chauvinism, even while they punch the air chanting USA! USA! - aren't these ideals inherently political? The idea that sport has nothing to do with politics rests on the charmingly quaint notion that politics is what goes on inside parliamentary chambers and government buildings and not much else, as if politics can be compartmentalised and kept neatly separate from those other boxes labelled 'economics', 'education', 'the private sphere' and 'shopping' (this is, of course, a characteristically bourgeois idea).

Politics, however, suffuses everything - wherever human beings enter into social relationships directly and indirectly there is politics. You cannot keep politics out of anything - it's always already there. In any case, what could be more political than a world competition into which national governments plough millions and millions of dollars to prepare their athletes for victory - in which the whole point seems to be the tallying of medals and the ranking of nations by the number of golds, silvers and bronzes their representatives have won? Isn't politics immediately, overwhelmingly, visible in sports stadiums filled to the brim with people frantically waving national flags at each other? What people really mean when they say that politics and sport should be kept separate is that they don't want the wrong sort of politics to weedle its way into sport. They don't want the sort of smelly, unsanitised, unsettling politics that concerns itself with oppression, poverty or exploitation to enter into the arena. They don't want people making Black Panther salutes on the medals podium for example - it's very hard to find corporate sponsors for that sort of thing. It's hard to package. It doesn't sell commodities.

The Indie has a couple of interesting articles today, by the way. On the matter of the Olympic torch they inform us that:

"There is a two-word answer to those who think the Olympic torch is a symbol of harmony between nations that should be kept apart from politics – Adolf Hitler.

The ceremony played out on the streets of Paris yesterday did not originate in ancient Greece, nor even in the 19th century, when the Olympic movement was revived. The entire ritual, with its pagan overtones, was devised by a German named Dr Carl Diem, who ran the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "

In the second, the paper raises a question that has been bothering me for a couple of days - just who are those blokes in the blue and white tracksuits? The TV reports hardly mentioned them. Are they Chinese secret service or what? Isn't it a bit odd that the British police have allowed the Chinese to police the Olympic circus on UK soil? Why is the BBC saying nothing about them?

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