The Flame of Shame

Newspapers, on April 8, 2008, flashed the pictures of former French tennis player, Arnaud Di Pasquale with the extinguished torch of the Olympics as headlines. The Olympic torch on a world-wide tour was in Paris and only for the third time in the history of modern Olympics was the torch extinguished; the first time for non-natural reasons. The flame for the 8-24 August Beijing Olympics is supposed to be kept burning, all the time, on its journey from Greece, where it was lit at the ancient site of Olympia using the sun’s rays, until it reaches Beijing where it will be used to set alight the cauldron for the entire duration of the Games. Even though there is a ‘mother flame’ which is kept burning all the time inside a sealed container and which feeds the torches, the Olympic flame is a symbol of a movement that for long has been a champion of unity and world peace. As such, protestors for the Tibetan independence have come under criticism for attacking an institution that is not Chinese in any way and, thus, cannot be held hostage to their protests.

This brings us to a very important question, one that has come under much scrutiny recently in India: Can sports and politics be separate? Indian football captain Bhaichung Bhutia has already refused to carry the torch when it comes to India as a show of solidarity with the Tibetan movement. Supercop Kiran Bedi has refused too. Milkha Singh, Leander Paes and others have said repeatedly that politics and sports should not be mixed. Actor Aamir Khan has said that he will carry the torch with a prayer on his lips for the people of Tibet. Opinions have been flowing in from all quarters with many saying that China is using the Olympics as an excuse to legitimize its control of Tibet. What amazes me is that the Olympics are supposed to be a movement for peace, human rights, unity and fraternity. But it has continuously been used as a forum to display power and make big political statements.

During the height of the Cold War, USA boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The USSR returned the favor in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. In 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian militants gunned down Israeli athletes to protest the Israeli actions in their native land. Beijing, and in general China has long been a flashpoint in international politics. In 1990, the International Olympic Committee refused to award the hosting rights to Beijing for the 1996 Games for its actions in Tiananmen Square massacre and its treatment of the Dalai Lama. Such international political issues have dogged the Olympics movement for a long time and have often put a question mark on its credibility. The Olympic symbol of the five interlocked rings have for long been a standard for world unity and brotherhood. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic movement had visualized it as a sign of greater bonding and a healthy spirit of sportsmanship among competing countries, which would lead to a more peaceful and tolerant world. The Olympic flame is largely a symbol of this movement.

However, such recent events have put it again under the scrutiny. Nations have, for long, jealously guarded its heroes and at a time when all-out wars are becoming increasingly rare, a pseudo-battle between countries has ensured that individuals form part of greater diplomatic issues. As such, the Olympics, which has always said that it was about individual or team competitions and not a competition among nations becomes part, unwillingly, to a neo-war among countries. Organizing the Olympics has become a matter of great pride and prestige and countries have poured in huge resources to ensure its success. Not only are they big revenue earners, they also serve to glorify the host country and provide it with an opportunity to showcase it strength. This battle for one-upmanship is what has lead the Olympic games in Beijing so important. Sports, thus, become irrelevant and nations and its pride come into question.

The Tibetan movement has a lot of support and Chinese human rights violations in Tibet and elsewhere cannot be denied, but is the Olympics the right place to protest such causes? At least in India, we should not talk about mixing sports and politics. Every sport organization, be it the cricket board or the hockey or even little known ones such as rugby federation, all are controlled by seasoned politicians who for long have made these associations as their fiefdom. Thus, it is very surprising that many politicians have come forward with such arguments. Politics have always played a role in sports in India. When veteran weightlifter Kunjarani Devi was ignored in the Athens Olympics, she accused the association of regional favoritism. It is an open secret that the BCCI has always been soft on players from Mumbai. Even the farce that is called National Games is decided by regional factors. Nothing else can justify the hosting of the Games in such ill-equipped venues such as Guwahati and Ranchi, when better venues such as Hyderabad and Chandigarh had also bid for it. And to think of it, the same Suresh Kalmadi, President of the Indian Olympic Association and a working member of the Congress party, talks about separating politics and sports?

This brings me back to my original question: can sports and politics be separated? The answer, as I see it, is no. The present world is too politically divided, narrow minded and short sighted to let sports be sports. It becomes an instrument of power and sportsmen become assets that are too dear to be ignored. The Olympics have been a staunch supporter of human rights and as such protests of such kind, against human rights violations cannot be ignored or criticized simply because one thinks it’s only about sports. To protest or to raise dissent is one of the fundamental rights of humans and this should not be taken from the Tibetan protesters. Otherwise the Olympic movement itself will come into question.

Anupam Dhar

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