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February 2014: Why I won’t be watching the Olympics

February 4, 2014

Last summer, when the Russian government passed an anti-gay “propaganda” law, my Facebook account erupted with appeals from gay friends to sign petitions, write letters, make calls. The targets were the International Olympic Committee (IOC), world leaders, Olympic athletes and sponsors. The demands were the relocation of the 2014 winter Olympics, the denouncement of the Russian law, a boycott of the Olympics by athletes and a withdrawal of sponsorship by Coca Cola, McDonald’s and others.

I signed none of the petitions, wrote none of the letters. Not because I didn’t believe the demands were justified, but because I’d seen it all before.

Yes, Item 6 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism does state: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” But what does this really mean? Quite frankly, not much.

There is now a suggestion that Item 6 should be amended to specifically include sexual orientation. Admirable, but somewhat belated.

And, even if such an amendment had been made a decade ago, as IOC President Thomas Bach acknowledged on The National, it would not have prevented Russia being awarded the 2014 Winter Olympics, as the contentious law was passed after the decision was made. Once awarded, it was never going to be taken away.

Let’s face it, this isn’t the first time the IO, in its infinite (and allegedly corrupt) wisdom has awarded the Olympics to a country with an appalling human rights record.

In 2001 Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Fifty years earlier, the leaders of Tibet, incapable of ever defeating Mao’s army of occupation, were forced to sign an agreement, surrendering their sovereignty and allowing the annexation of their country. Promises were made about Tibetan autonomy: protection for Tibetan culture, language and religion. All these promises were broken. For five decades Tibetans had been subjected to what can only be called cultural genocide. China’s reward? The 2008 Olympic Games.

In 2007 I was appointed acting director of Free Tibet, based in the UK. For six years, the organisation (and other Tibet support groups around the world) had made similar pleas to those made in the past few months by Lesbian Gay Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) groups. Those pleas either fell on similarly deaf ears or were rewarded with boilerplate letters offering assurance that human rights in China could only improve as a result of staging the Olympics. I don’t know if the IOC genuinely believed this, but no one else did.

It wasn’t until 10 March 2008, when the Tibetan people themselves, on the anniversary of their 1959 failed independence uprising, once again rose up. Their protests were crushed with typical brutality by the Chinese military. Unfortunately for the Chinese government, this time there were journalists and tourists in Lhasa to bear witness.

The eyes of the world – much to the fury of Chinese authorities – were suddenly on Tibet. Calls were renewed by Free Tibet and others for the IOC, world leaders and sponsors to speak out. The IOC and Olympic sponsors accused us of attempting to “politicise the Olympics”.  (And why not?) The mealy-mouthed response from Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office made it clear that China was to be wooed, not insulted. (The only semi-political figure in the UK prepared to criticise the Chinese government’s long record of human rights abuses in Tibet was Prince Charles.)

I will give the CBC its due. Even though it is the network on which Olympic events will be shown, in the run up to the Sochi games it has openly criticised Russia’s anti-gay laws. In the UK in 2008, the BBC’s pro-China’s stance brooked little criticism. The corporation went so far as to produce a documentary series about Tibet, reflecting a sunny view so far from the truth that it could only be called propaganda.

At no point did we ever call for athletes to boycott the Beijing games. Nor would I suggest Canadian or any other athletes should boycott Sochi. They’ve been training for this for years and the bad decisions of the IOC are not the athletes’ fault. We did suggest that, if their consciences prompted them to do so, they could take a stand by simply making a “T for Tibet” hand signal.

Actor Philip Glenister: "If we were scripting a line for Gene Hunt, he'd probably say, ' Tibet has more bones to pick with China than a dog that's dug up a dinosaur'. I think Tibet has some pretty big bones to pick with us - all the countries in the west who've turned a blind eye to the Chinese occupation and the destruction of Tibetan culture. That's why I'm supporting the T for Tibet campaign. My message is to the British government: Get off your backside and do something to free Tibet ."

Actor Philip Glennister was one of many public figures who took part in the T for Tibet Campaign.

One UK competitor contacted me, requesting a Free Tibet shirt, which was duly dispatched, with a warning that it was likely to be confiscated in Beijing. Shortly afterwards the IOC and all national Olympic committees issued a dictate that no athlete should do, say or wear anything which might cause offence to the host country. The athlete went on to win a medal, but there was no T for Tibet hand signal. I was neither surprised nor disappointed. The pressure then – as now – was palpable.

The human rights situation did not improve in Tibet. Predictably, once the world’s limited attention span moved on, the situation got worse and continues to deteriorate.

Is there any way to prevent the Olympics being used as a showcase by totalitarian governments? Yes. Give the games a permanent home. Athens is the obvious choice for the Summer Games. (And the Greek economy could certainly benefit from the boost.) As for the Winter Games, pick somewhere that will definitely have snow in February. After that, give it publicly to the highest bidder and end this boondoggle once and for all.

I won’t be watching the Sochi games. (Mind you, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I don’t like sport, so I wouldn’t be watching wherever the games were being staged.)

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