Olympics in Crisis
(April 10, 2008)
TIBET - BEIJING - Crisis. Disarray. Sadness. Four months before the opening of what was supposed to be the grandest Olympics in history, the head of the International Olympic Committee is using words that convey anything but a sense of joyous enthusiasm.
The protest-marred Olympic torch relay and international criticism of China's policies on Tibet, Darfur and human rights have turned the Beijing Games into one of the most politically charged in recent history and presented the IOC with one of its toughest tests since the boycott era of the 1970s and '80s.
"It is a crisis, there is no doubt about that," IOC President Jacques Rogge said Thursday.
At the same time, Rogge called on China to respect its "moral engagement" to improve human rights and to fulfill promises of greater media freedom. He also reaffirmed the right of free speech for athletes at the Beijing Games.
Rogge spoke in Beijing just hours after the completion of the torch relay in San Francisco, where the route was shortened and the flame diverted to prevent disruptions by massive crowds of anti-China protesters.
Three pro-Tibet demonstrators climbed cables on the Golden Gate Bridge on Tuesday to condemn China's government in advance of the Olympic torch's run through San Francisco.
The demonstrators unfurled a giant banner reading "One World, One Dream" and "Free Tibet 08", while at least one of the daredevil protesters could be seen carrying a Tibetan flag, television images showed.
A New York environmental activist selected to carry the Olympic torch, Majora Carter of the Bronx, signaled her solidarity with Tibetan protesters by unfurling a Tibetan flag soon after she was handed the torch in San Francisco yesterday afternoon.
Ms. Carter said that after she pulled the flag from her sleeve the torch was quickly taken from her and she was pushed out of the Olympic entourage.
Ms. Carter foreshadowed her action when she spoke Tuesday night at a candlelight vigil staged by Tibetans and pro-Tibet activists. "I'm going to be carrying that torch because I do see it as a light for freedom and for justice. I know that I'm getting the kind of love that I'm feeling from all of you tonight, that a little bit of that love is going to transfer into that flame and it is going to go all the way to China,"she said at a candlelight vigil at San Francisco's United Nations Plaza.
Reaction from International Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge's can be gauged by his use of the word "crisis", which he used to describe the torch relay. The Belgian orthopedic surgeon's comments usually are measured and low-key.
He cited previous crises — the attack on Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the boycotts of the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games.
After the chaos caused by pro-Tibet demonstrators during torch relays in London and Paris, IOC officials were relieved the North American leg passed without any injuries.
The head of the committee organizing the torch run in Indonesia said the route will be significantly shortened because of Chinese concerns it might attract pro-Tibet protests.
Hong Kong newspapers reported Wednesday that officials may shorten the route.
The relay also is expected to face demonstrations in New Delhi, India, which has a substantial Tibetan population, and possibly elsewhere on its 21-stop tour before arriving in mainland China on May 4.
The Olympics begin August 8, 2008.
Rogge, who has come under pressure from critics to speak out on China, was asked whether he had second thoughts about awarding the games to Beijing seven years ago.
"I've said that it is very easy with hindsight to criticize the decision," he said. "It's easy to say now that this was not a wise and a sound decision."
But Rogge insisted Beijing had "clearly the best bid" and offered the strong pull of taking the Olympics to a country with one-fifth of the world's population.
"That was the reasoning for awarding the bid to Beijing."
When Beijing was seeking the games, Rogge noted, Chinese officials said the Olympics would help advance social change, including human rights. He called that a "moral engagement" and stressed there was no "contractual promise whatsoever" on human rights in the official host city contract.
"I would definitely ask China to respect this moral engagement," Rogge said, in one of his most pointed comments on the subject.
Rogge reported having "very frank and open discussions" with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on a range of Olympic issues Wednesday. He declined to elaborate.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be attending the opening, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is considering staying away. U.S. Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton have called on President Bush to boycott the ceremony.
Rogge said free expression has been enshrined in the Olympic Charter for more than 40 years as a "basic human right." However, the charter also forbids any "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" in any Olympic sites or venues.
"I'm very clear on the fact that athletes have ample opportunities to express themselves without hindrance, but just by respecting the sacred environment of the Olympic village, the Olympic venues the podium and so forth," he said.
Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama said he is willing to support the Beijing Olympics, but China cannot suppress protests in Tibet with violence or tell those calling for more freedom in his homeland "to shut up."
During a stopover in Japan on his way to the United States, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader strongly denied Chinese allegations he and his followers have been fomenting unrest before the Olympics. He said he has supported China's hosting the Olympics from the start.
"Right from the beginning, we supported the Olympic Games," he told reporters in Japan.
The Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since a failed 1959 uprising in Tibet, said he would even like to attend the opening ceremony if the Tibetan crisis is resolved. "If things improve and the Chinese government starts to see things realistically, I personally want to enjoy the big ceremony," he said.