Politicising the Olympics?

The renewed furore over China's hosting the 2008 summer Olympics says more about the bourgeoisie than Beijing, argues James Turley

As 2008 settles into its stride, the controversy in the west over the People’s Republic of China’s legitimacy in handling the Olympic Games has re-emerged with a vengeance.

Indeed, a whole new strand of anti-Beijing rhetoric has come to the fore, eclipsing the old favourites of Tibet and free speech. Certainly, the NGO, Journalists Without Borders, has been recommending a boycott for some time and continues to do so, as do pro-Tibetan organisations such as the International Committee for Tibet. But the most remarkable development has been the spread of the controversy over Darfur and Sudan to encompass Sudan’s biggest trading partner, the PRC.

The well publicised Darfur crisis is a brutal civil war that has raged for the last five years. It has pitted the Sudanese state, allied with and more recently incorporating Janjawid militias (who are predominantly drawn from northern Sudanese Arab tribes) against several scattered rebel groups (based on various, mostly non-Arab tribes, such as the Fur, Zaghawa and Massaleit). The rebels enjoy a great deal of passive and active support from the various Darfuri peoples, which has led to infamous atrocities on the part of the Khartoum government - it is estimated that 200,000-400,000 civilians have died, with two and a half million displaced. This has caused an international outcry, similar in form to that around the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

There can be no doubt that the relationship between Beijing and Khartoum is a close one - Jim Moody called Sudan “almost a neo-colony of China” (‘Behind the class turmoil’ Weekly Worker December 6 2007). China presently buys two-thirds of oil produced in Sudan, and Amnesty International alleges that the arms used by Janjaweed militias are purchased from China. There is certainly a reasonably secure argument to be made that, were China to cease trade with the Khartoum regime, the latter would fairly quickly find itself in very hot water indeed, and - if the rebel fighting strength were there - at risk of prompt overthrow.

Whether this would necessarily lead to the end of the kind of hostilities that currently fuels the ethnic cleansing rather than simply a ‘reversal of fortunes’ that would see similar massacres of Arab tribes is less clear. The divisions are multi-polar, and - as in Iraq, Israel/Palestine and elsewhere - largely the result of British imperialist policy; the British artificially supported missionary communities in the south, for example, an additional source of tension in an overwhelmingly muslim country.

That outcry is a complex one with many discrete elements. The usual array of NGOs - Oxfam, Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières - have issued the usual emergency appeals, whose adverts decorate the liberal press. The UN has repeatedly demanded something be done, and indeed resolved to send 17,800 ‘peacekeeping’ troops into the region in summer 2006. Various individual countries have also issued their own statements of a more or less condemnatory character (barring, of course, China): most notably, the United States congress unanimously passed a resolution which declared the Janjawid activity to be state-sponsored genocide.

As usual, we need waste no time discussing the sudden rediscovery of morality by the world’s foremost imperialist power - its statements are fairly nakedly part of an ongoing power play against China, which is emerging as a serious competitor on the world stage. The current situation has simply posed the relationship between China and Sudan more sharply - although George Bush has refused to back calls for an Olympic boycott.

The same cannot be said of the many celebrities and few athletes who have made statements critical of the Chinese record on Darfur, who are no doubt sincere in their views.

Indeed, those athletes who have spoken out have done so at some personal risk. International Olympic Committee rules officially ban any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” in “any Olympic sites, venues or other areas” (multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_122.pdf), and the British Olympic Committee appeared to require athletes to sign an agreement not to say anything “politically sensitive” - although the furore against this proposed pledge caused the BOC to deny that it meant what it said (The Guardian February 8).

The Chinese government accuses activists of “politicising” the Olympics, but this is simply ridiculous - the Olympics have always been political. They symbolise efforts to make sport a weapon in the interest of rival national capitals. The most ‘political’ thing about the outspoken athletes is simply the attempt to silence them - the (probable) absence of any open protests by athletes come the summer will ‘speak’ very eloquently to the Chinese ruling class!

Communists demand, for athletes as much as for anyone else, freedom of speech - wherever they are, and whatever they are doing. There is no greater Olympic moment for the left than the famous image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos making a black-power salute on the winners’ podium; we wish to see many more such gestures interrupt the orgies of chauvinistic self-congratulation that abound in international sporting competition.

A question of sport

It is not just the Olympics which are politically charged, of course. Indeed, it seemed that a mood of national soul-searching as great as ruminations over the Iraq war was unleashed a few months ago by England’s failure to qualify for football’s European Cup finals.

As the Football Association sought a replacement for the calamitous outgoing manager, Steve McLaren, an old argument re-emerged - that of foreign managers managing ‘our’ team. Gareth Southgate was none too pleased by the idea, telling The Guardian: “I don’t understand the point of international football if the manager, coach, kit man, etc are not all English. I don’t see the point of it if it’s not about representing your country ... That may sound xenophobic, but surely the point of international football is that it is xenophobic” (December 14 2007).

This hits on a point so very obvious that it is easy to miss - international sporting competitions are, if not ontologically doomed to it, certainly structured to tend towards national chauvinism. It is a certain, more frivolous kind of Clausewitzean ‘continuation of war by other means’. The Olympics provide the greatest historical examples of that: Hitler wanted to prove the genetic superiority of the German race by putting on the best show and winning all the races; and the Stalinist countries instituted state-sponsored doping programmes in order to demonstrate the greatness of ‘socialist’ society. Isolated, such efforts seem farcical - but they are only very concentrated versions of what every national team has ever done; it is a pattern given significance above its humour value by being reproduced across many elements in bourgeois society.

This is the dominant element in what we might call, with sledgehammer subtlety, ‘the sporting ideology’ - there is, of course, an undercurrent, as in most bourgeois formations, of semi-repressed utopian spirit. If national teams represent a ‘xenophobic’ parcelling-out of the world, they also represent a collectivity and a division of labour in which all members are allowed to shine - a united assault on the limits of physical endeavour (even if pointless, arbitrary physical endeavour).

Under normal conditions, these two tendencies bristle against one another in the symbolic culture of sport; and under normal conditions, chauvinism wins. The Olympics do not happen in a vacuum, however. They, too, are subject to the structures, strictures and trends in capitalist society, and in abnormal conditions, political struggles and processes of global realignment of power can spill over into competitions.

Althusser called the process overdetermination, and it gives us - every once in a while, amid the fetid slurry of flag-waving and foreigner-baiting - an event like the two gloved hands of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

Such an event is unlikely in Beijing - after all, Carlos and Smith were tied up in the most ferocious political struggles in 20th century American history, rather than what is - in spite of the undoubted horror of the events in Darfur - yet another liberal NGO campaign with very little real meaning for competing states. But the events will make for an interesting chapter in the history of the modern Olympic Games nonetheless.