'shut up and play'? That's not OK. That's not the Olympics." So
wrote Sports Illustrated's Aditi Kinkhabwala, joining a rising
chorus of sportswriters criticizing the pre-emptive repression
of speech of Olympic athletes.
It's no doubt
worthy of their ire. The British Olympic Association told their
teams in writing that they are forbidden to speak out "on any
politically sensitive issues." Other countries have done the same.
Olympic Committee president Dick Pound made crystal clear to the
Canadian Olympians, "If it is so tough for you that you can't
bear not to say anything, then stay at home." USA basketball and
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "None of these athletes [has]
a responsibility to be political. They have the responsibility
to represent their country." And IOC head Jacques Rogge has also
said that "political factors" need to be kept away from the Games.
is mind-boggling. The entire reason the Olympics are even in Beijing
is political in nature - an effort by the West to embrace China
as a 21st century economic and military superpower.
were to be China's coming out party. Yet the recent crackdown
in Tibet has opened a Pandora's box, where athletes and professional
protestors are rushing to condemn every aspect of China's market
Stalinist economy: its treatment of Tibetans, China's role in
Darfur, labor rights abuses and environmental concerns.
entire reason the Olympics are even in Beijing is political
in nature - an effort by the West to embrace China as a
21st century economic and military superpower.
that's just for starters. As we have seen in the recent running
of the Olympic torch - turned into a protester obstacle course
- everything is on the table. The repression of speech by Olympic
officials occurs precisely because many athletes want to talk.
softball player Jessica Mendoza, who won a bronze medal in the
Athens Games, is part of a coalition of more than 200 athletes
called Team Darfur. She is planning to wear Team Darfur wristbands
in Beijing when she's not competing. "I don't think it's my place
to tell China what to do," she told Vahe Gregorian of the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch. "But I do think it's my place to tell people
what is happening. I want people to know that nearly 400,000 people
have been killed in Darfur since 2004."
invoked that ultimate moment when protest and politics intersected,
the Black Power salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on a podium
in the 1968 Mexico City Games. Mendoza described it as "an effective
use of their time in the limelight" - even if they were "sent
packing" and expelled from Olympic Village. They otherwise might
not have been heard somewhere else," she said. "That was a moment
in time to watch."
while I support the right of any athlete to speak out and not
be silenced by Olympic bureaucrats to make things pleasant for
China's rulers, we should also look critically at what it is that
people are protesting.
to a far different set of concerns than those represented by Tommie
Smith, John Carlos and the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
we have seen in the recent running of the Olympic torch
- turned into a protester obstacle course - everything is
on the table. The repression of speech by Olympic officials
occurs precisely because many athletes want to talk.
and Carlos came to Mexico City to raise awareness about injustices
happening in their own country. They wore no shoes on the stand
to protest poverty in the United States. They wore beads to protest
lynching in the United States. They wore gloves and raised them
during the playing of the anthem to signify dissent against the
way the African American Olympic athletes were treated. As they
said in their founding statement, "Why should we run in Mexico
City only to crawl home?"
of this 2008 crop of athletes is daring to say that maybe protest
begins at home. They are raising concerns about China's policies
in Tibet or Darfur, but not the U.S. wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are concerns about China's labor standards, but not the
way their own sponsors, like Nike, exploit those standards.
the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Chief Executive Jim Scherr,
issued a surprisingly benign statement that athletes should "do
what they want to do" but "shouldn't feel undue pressure to be
a part of someone else's cause." But blaming China for the ills
of the world ignores the stubborn fact that there is a reason
the games are in Beijing. Western complicity in China's crimes
isn't challenged by bashing China. It's only covered up.
Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain,
Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket Books, 2007). He is
also the author of "The Muhammad Ali Handbook" (MQ Publications)
and has also gotten himself a blog site, www.myspace.com/edgeofsports,
which he invites you to visit. His book, "What's My Name Fool?
Sports and Resistance in the United States," is also in stores.
You can receive his column, Edge of Sports, every week by emailing
says: "I love writing this column but can only
continue with this work if people buy the books. We have a lot
of mouths to feeds in this house (and about three of them are
you believe in progressive, iconoclastic sports writing please
pick up a copy of Welcome To The Terrordome. If you believe in
being part of a project to "tear down the Terrordome,"
pick up five and give them to the apolitical sports fans in your
life. The only way ideas like this spread are from the bottom
up. And if you want to sound off on the article, please take the
time to visit and post a comment at http://edgeofsports.com/2008-02-26-328/index.html.
Other articles by Dave Zirin:
Crackdown: China's Brutal Olympic Echo
Chavez Challenges Baseball
The Fall Of Marion Jones, Inc.
Why Michael Vick Is Not A Fascist
When Domes Attack
The Meaning Of The Sports Spectacle
Clown Prince Of Bizarro World
No Scapegoats: The Other Side Of Hip-Hop
(co-written with Jeff Chang)
The Greatest Anti-War Protestor
Pimping Mike Tyson
Pat Tillman's Brother Breaks His Silence
The Passing Of Peter Norman
When Fists Are Frozen
Why Today I Wear My Zidane Jersey
Hey Guys, It's Not A War
Using Soccer To Kick Iran
Why Did Pat Tillman Die?
Why Pat Tillman's Parents Are No Longer Silent