August 8, 2008, The Opening Day Of The Olympic Games

As a former athlete, I am completely opposed to the idea of mixing politics and the Olympics. I was stunned back in 1980 when America’s worst President of all time, a disaster named James Earl Carter, used our Olympic athletes as political pawns and punished them for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by not allowing them to compete in the Moscow Games. The boycotting of the Games changed nothing and the only symbolism it produced was that it showed how flaky Carter had become. When the boycott was announced, the rest of the world finally saw how spineless and ineffective he was.

But I am also opposed the idea of a host country mixing politics and the Olympics, especially by revoking visas of private citizens who wish to attend the Games and by attempting to silence any criticism athletes may have of the host government.

Such is the case with Gold Medal winning speed-skater Joey Cheek who co-founded Team Darfur. His visa was revoked by the Chinese government because he is very critical of the Chinese support of the Sudanese who have been causing genocide in the Darfur region.

USA Today has a nice article about that situation and the fact that a Team Darfur member will be carrying the U.S. flag in the opening ceremonies:

Lopez Lomong, a Lost Boy of the Sudan and a member of Team Darfur, was selected Thursday as flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic team in Friday’s opening ceremonies. His selection came the same day winter Olympian and Team Darfur co-founder Joey Cheek had his visa revoked by China.

Cheek, a 2006 gold medal winning speedskater who had expected to arrive in Beijing on Thursday, is angry that the Chinese government is taking this “effort to suppress discussion about human rights.”

He was happy about Lomong’s selection but said it had no bearing on his situation. Lomong, 23, a 1,500-meter runner, was born in Sudan and driven from his family after a rebel attack — a fate shared by thousands of children. After escaping from a rebel camp at 6, he spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya before arriving in Tully, N.Y., and becoming a citizen a year ago “His selection is a statement to how moving his story is,” Cheek said. “The fact that he survived these tragedies is an amazing story.”

Cheek had planned to attend the Games to support the 70-plus athletes competing in Beijing who have signed onto Team Darfur. The group is critical of the Chinese government’s funding of the Sudanese regime responsible for the genocide in Darfur.

Cheek is less concerned about not going to the Olympics than he is about “the muzzling of athletes” who are competing. “I really hope the International Olympic Committee will make all efforts to protect competing athletes and their right to be able to speak about this or any issue they consider to be relevant,” he said.

President Bush was also critical of the Chinese government’s record of human-rights violations during a speech at the new U.S. embassy in Beijing. But the President never entertained the idea of boycotting the Olymipics and he has made it clear that his attendance at the opening ceremony is to support U.S. athletes, not to give any kind of legitimacy to the Chinese policies.

From the Seattle Times:

Eager for the Olympics to begin, President Bush gave a pep talk to U.S. athletes Friday and then settled in for the opening ceremonies, after starting his day with another swipe at China’s human rights record.

“It’s gotta be really exciting, thinking about marching in that stadium and representing our country, “an enthusiastic Bush told the cheering American contingent gathered in the Olympic fencing center.

“We appreciate all the hard work you’ve put in to get to this spot,” said Bush, accompanied by wife Laura and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. team’s honorary captain.

“We want you to win as many golds as you possibly can. Go forth, give it all you got.”

Bush earlier used the dedication of the new U.S. Embassy to prod China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides – with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage.

At one venue, the embassy dedication, the President rightly criticized the Chinese government. At the other venue, a pep talk for the American Olympians, the President rightly offered praise and support for U.S. athletes. That is how it is done.

The athletes are in agreement:

Dwyane Wade, a member of the superstar-laden men’s basketball team, said he was happy Bush would be in the stands.

“We get support of our president, that means a lot. That means a lot of people … back home want us to succeed,” Wade said.

“So we have to go out there and play like we’re representing the US of A,” he said. “If we do that … we’ll win it.”

That’s all I have to say about the politics of the Olympics. The Games are about the athlete and the sport. If the athletes want to say a few words, let them. But don’t forget why they are there to begin with.

You can access both articles on-line here:

Darfur Refugee To Carry Flag For U.S. At Opening Ceremony
Janice Lloyd and Dick Patrick
USA Today
August 7, 2008

Bush Gives Pep Talks To US Olympians In Beijing
Paul Alexander
Associated Press via The Seattle Times
August 8, 2008

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