The Patriot Games

Is there anyone, anywhere, who believes Olympic bureaucrats when they declare that the Games are about athletics, not politics? Even the athletes themselves — standing upon the winners’ podium, draped in their national flag and singing their national anthem — must realise that the Olympics are actually undisguised geopolitics and taxpayer financed publicity stunts.

One need only look at the opening ceremony to realise that the Olympics are little more than an excuse for nation states to preen in front of each other like ostriches in mating season.

By August, the three largest totalitarian states of the 20th century — Nazi Germany, the USSR and China — will all have been Olympic hosts. Certainly, China’s appalling human rights record has improved since the Great Leap Forward. But providing dictatorships with a pre-packaged marketing program is hard to reconcile with the Olympic charter, which argues that the Games are to reflect “universal fundamental ethical principles”.

But everybody knows the torch relay has its origins in the Nazi Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Everybody knows how the USSR seized upon the Moscow Games, proclaiming that it was an acknowledgement of their fantastic record of maintaining world peace.

The relationship between totalitarianism and the Olympics is old news.

The modern Olympics have always been a potent mix of late 19th century nationalism and elite athleticism. The Olympics may now sparkle with the glitter of cutting-edge telecommunications infrastructure and high-performance sports apparel, but the Games have never quite shed their legacy of stern pseudo-militarism.

Even when peaceful liberal democracies host the Olympics, they are drenched with propaganda. As everybody remembers from last year’s federal election, democratic governments are always happy to spend gigantic sums on public relations. The Olympics are a publicity stunt on a colossally expensive scale.

Few of the other justifications for staging the Olympics stack up. Whatever jobs are “created” during the two weeks of events are quickly extinguished when the flame is.

Some Games supporters claim that staging the Olympics provides an opportunity to make much-needed infrastructure upgrades, particularly in transportation. Those who still hold this view clearly haven’t been to Sydney recently.

Others claim that the Olympic publicity encourages international tourism once the festivities are over. But we only ever hear politicians predict tourism bonanzas when they can’t think of anything else to say. What potential visitors were unaware of the existence of Athens, Beijing or London until they heard that those cities would be Olympic cities?

Whatever economic spillovers hosting the Games can bring, they nowhere near justify the enormous cost. If there is an economic benefit to staging the Olympics, then the economy hasn’t heard about it.

Looking at the impact of the announcement in 1993 that Sydney would host the Games, a group of RMIT economists concluded that the stock market didn’t budge at all. Only building firms saw their values rise.

The two biggest beneficiaries of the Olympics are politicians hoping to bask in the loving glow of the international media, and property developers looking for stadium contracts.

In Beijing, Chinese taxpayers have to support an event designed to glorify the Communist Party that has ruled over them for more than half a century.

But boycotting the Beijing Games is no more likely to pressure China into repairing its human rights record than granting them the Olympics did in the first place. There have been dozens of Games boycotts over the past century, and none have had any significant political impact.

In fact, political controversy has shared the stage with athletics at almost every modern Olympics. Even innocent Melbourne in 1956 was marred by boycotts — China withdrew because the Games committee recognised Taiwan, three countries withdrew because of Israel, and another three withdrew in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. When the USSR played Hungary in water polo that year, the match resembled a pub brawl.

Boycotts and underwater fisticuffs may be rarer since the end of the Cold War, but politics still infuses every aspect of the Games.

The official website of the Chinese Olympic Committee is unambiguous about Beijing’s ideological content, advertising its National Fitness Program, which has been hard at work since 1995 “promoting mass sporting activities on an extensive scale, improving the people’s physique, and spurring the socialist modernisation of our country”.

In the same breath — or, at least, on the same page — the website laments the attempted politicisation of the Beijing Games by “some Western forces” and “separatists”.

Remember the tedious controversy about non-Australian marching bands in the Sydney opening ceremony? Every moment of the Beijing Games will be stage-managed to shed the best light on a dictatorship that has more than 4000 domestic political prisoners.

So, rather than pretending that politics can be hidden under the woolly feel-goodness of the officially prescribed “Olympic Spirit”, we should encourage the Games’ politicisation.

The Chinese Government is welcome to its publicity stunt, but while the country is under the full glare of the world’s media, there is probably no better time for demonstrations and counter-stunts.

Despite their lofty ambitions, the Olympics have never brought world peace. Nevertheless, if the press corps manages to outflank China’s propaganda machine, they might be able to turn this expensive political advertisement into something good for human rights.

Don’t forget — it’s not about the sport.