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Games with a ring of shame
The Daily Telegraph[Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:51]
By Claire Harvey

WE'VE seen almost every possible emotion at these Olympics: misery, joy, despair and a wonderful display of raw surprise by the man from Togo.

Benjamin Boukpeti was so astonished at winning Togo's first medal (of any colour) in the K-1 slalom that he snapped his oar in half, then waved the Togo flag so violently that he capsized. It was lovely.

There has been some sensational soprano grunting, too, from the tiny girl weightlifters. Not sure if it counts as an emotion but, as a display of feeling, there's nothing so emphatic as a staccato pre-jerk bark from a little lady with barrel thighs.

But there's been no hint that the athletes in Beijing think or feel anything beyond the rush of lactic acid. Where's the political consciousness, people?

Apart from an open letter sent to Chinese Premier Hu Jintao before the Games, in which 120 past and present athletes (sadly, none of them Australian) raised concerns about Tibet, there has been a depressing silence.

Don't competitors want to acknowledge that they're competing in a police state? Are they conscious of what happens beyond the ring of army tanks around the Olympic precinct? What a shame.

When the International Olympic Committee handed hosting rights to China, we read a great deal of speculation about how the IOC hoped it could help democratise China.

My natural inclination is to suspect the IOC of dodginess at every opportunity, but I did have some hope that this might just turn out to be more than one diseased old regime clapping another on the back.

Perhaps, I thought, this will shine a disinfecting light into the dark corners of repression. And, surely, some brave athlete will use their time on the winner's podium to stick two fingers up to the regime.

If anyone has the opportunity to use fame for good, it's Olympic athletes.

They have the exposure - and the orthodontic perfection - to get a message heard around the globe. They also have a captive audience of journalists desperate to hold Beijing accountable for the off-field bullying and brutality we all know is going on.

If Michael Phelps can get the Olympic rings tattooed on one hip and a big M for Michigan University on the other, why not a T for Tibet on his ankle?

What's stopping Libby Trickett saying something like: "Oh, and while I'm live on television, I'd like to thank China for hosting the Games and encourage the government to embrace the spirit of openness and harmony by releasing a few political prisoners".

Yes, I know the Australian Olympic Committee has said athletes aren't allowed to do that sort of thing, and I'm well aware our Olympic bureaucrats have a record of petty score-settling that may make team members wary of doing anything naughty.

The AOC, remember, spent three decades punishing Peter Norman for wearing a human rights badge on the podium while Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a black power salute at the 1968 Games.

Today's athletes have the same opportunity to make their voices heard. They've had all the benefits of education, travel and, in many cases, exposure to the work of international charities to enlarge their sense of global citizenship.

And they're the only ones who can do it.

The Beijing Organising Committee is doing everything in its power to stop journalists raising politics. A BOCOG moderator blocked a question about the Russia-Georgia war during a press conference for a Georgian medal-winner.

When asked why, BOCOG spokesman Wei Wang trotted out the usual pap about Rule 51.3 of the Olympic Charter, which forbids the promotion of political agendas.

BOCOG may feel comfortable bullying journalists but the politburo isn't going to try taking a medal off an athlete for chucking in the odd "Free Tibet!" at the end of a press conference.

It's worth the risk, isn't it?
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