The Faceoff: Are the protests against the Olympic torch relay justified?

By Matt Dubois

This year's Olympics are one of the most politically-charged in the history of the games, and in the wake of protests along the torch's relay route in London and France, the atmosphere of unrest has grown even more pronounced. Human rights activists call for corporations and even competing nations to boycott the games: They cite China's long history of human-rights violations such as Tiananmen Square, the religious persecution of Falun Gong and more recently, China's refusal to use its considerable influence in Sudan to help halt the genocide in Darfur, choosing instead to supply the Sudanese government with planes and weapons.

Many call the protestors extreme in their efforts to physically extinguish the torch, a supposed symbol of peace and international unity, and Chinese officials have unsurprisingly condemned the acts, stating that the "despicable activities tarnish the lofty Olympic spirit."

To hear a nation with a human-rights track record as abysmal as China's call a protest "despicable" actually makes me laugh, but in an angry way. And considering the European protests fall on the heels of a rash of violent clashes in PRC-occupied Tibet, the issue at stake takes on special significance.

The initial Tibetan protests in Lhasa fell on March 10, the 49-year anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Communist China. What began as a peaceful demonstration by monks soon exploded into widespread rioting after the monks were arrested and Chinese military forces called in. It is estimated that anywhere between 10 and 100 Tibetans have been killed and up to 100 monks detained in the crackdown.

A more exact count is unavailable, as the only foreign media access to Lhasa takes the form of government-guided tours, but the bare that China still militarily occupies and squelches resistance in Tibet casts a pall of shame on China and the Olympic spirit it claims to hold so dear.

Also, the running of the torch itself loses some of its symbolic luster when you consider its origins: The institution of the torch at the 1936 Olympic Games was originally part of a Nazi propaganda campaign to draw international focus from Germany's designs on territorial expansion and its regime of genocide.

China, too, has dirt it would prefer kept under its rug - dirt the Tibetan and European protestors hoped to bring to light. Prior to WWII, the U.S. had an opportunity to boycott the games, thereby withholding public support from Germany and potentially stemming the worst of its crimes - one we failed to take.

It seems that chance is slipping by us today, as well: Instead of using American political clout in the Olympic Games to help pressure China to ease the crackdown on Tibet, President Bush plans to attend them personally. But surely this has nothing to do with foreign trade, and everything to do with Olympic spirit.

I won't say that the Tibetan occupation is the same as the Holocaust, or that the concept of the Olympic spirit is an inherently bad thing, but the torch and what it stands for shouldn't blind us to the fact that the Olympics are a human institution subject to human motives and flaws. To carry on playing games while a people is persecuted under our very noses, while not uncharacteristic of U.S. foreign policy, is inexcusable.

By Aaron Davis

This argument must be prefaced by an acknowledgment that the Chinese history of oppression in their own country and in Tibet is both immoral and horrifying, and that I believe that Beijing never should have received the blessings of the Olympic Committee to host the Olympic Games.

I must admit, though, that it deeply saddens me to see the violent protests against China's hosting of the games. In ancient times, during the games the people participating laid down their arms against each other and initiated a brief interlude of peaceful athletic competition. Apparently, we've forgotten this idea.

By suppressing the people of Tibet, China itself does not uphold the spirit of the games. Many will point to this hypocrisy and proclaim that, of course, their violent protests are justified by the violence of the Chinese government against other people. I cannot agree with this position, for the simple reason that it is wrong.

As children we are taught that the way to beat a bully is to be better than him, not to descend to his level. In war, as Americans, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct than our opponents do. In life, we are taught to take the higher road. But in the games, which are historically the epitome of peace, we can apparently descend to another level.

Why is it so impossible for anything to be sacred in the world today? Nothing is free of politics, nothing is free of violence and side-taking. That was the original plan of the Olympic Games: a free forum of athletic competition. Nothing more, nothing less. To be an Olympic athlete is to be an Olympic athlete. You're not a banker and an Olympian, or a lawyer and an Olympian. You are simply an Olympian.

Many cannot let the Olympics be so simple, though. They use them as a tool, it seems, to deride the nation that was chosen to host them. I don't defend China here, I simply wish to present the notion that maybe the Olympic Games are not the forum for criticism that some would take them to be.

In short, the decision is made. The flame has already left Mount Olympus, and is bound for Beijing. The debate is over, nothing will stop the games from being held in China. Why protest? Why can we not hold to the true spirit of these competitions, and let our athletes run, swim, jump and play peacefully, without malignance or spite?