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Gene Menez
April 23, 2001
Rising U.S.-China tensions turn the Olympics into a political football
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April 23, 2001

Five-ring Circus

Rising U.S.-China tensions turn the Olympics into a political football

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The spy-plane incident has thrown into high relief areas of conflict between China and the U.S., not the least of which is Beijing's bid for the 2008 Summer Games. Although most observers believe the incident won't hurt China's chances of getting the Olympics, the superpower showdown has intensified the debate over the bid among U.S. politicians, the outcome of which could have lasting repercussions.

Human rights activists have long opposed Beijing's bid, and on March 28—four days before the midair collision off Hainan Island—the House Committee on International Relations approved a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Democrat Tom Lantos of California urging the IOC to deny China the 2008 Games. "A whole generation of Americans have gotten their first insight into how a totalitarian police state functions," said Lantos 10 days after the accident. On April 10, Yang Jiechi, China's ambassador to the U.S., called the resolution "gross interference in the internal affairs and inherent rights of the IOC."

In light of recent U.S. Olympic blunders—most notably the Salt Lake City bid scandal—Lantos's resolution is likely to bolster support for Beijing among IOC members already inclined to view Americans as arrogant and heavy-handed. "Any government trying to influence the IOC's decision would come up against a negative response," says influential IOC member Dick Pound of Canada, one of five contenders to replace outgoing president Juan Antonio Samaranch. "The U.S. should be cautious, particularly if it is going to have a candidate in the field for 2012." (Eight U.S. cities are planning to bid for those Games.) Adds Olympic historian John MacAloon, "If the resolution goes any further it will be viewed as self-serving and naive. Many IOC members believe U.S. politicians know very little about the Olympic Games and care very little about their well-being."

The most influential statement on the Beijing bid may have come not from a congressman but from a Chinese reformer. In a March 30 New York Times op-ed piece, Zhang Liang (the pseudonym for the Communist Party member who released The Tiananmen Papers, which detailed the Chinese government's role in the 1989 crackdown) argued that rejecting the Beijing bid would enable conservative Chinese leaders to "exploit anti-Western sentiments and enhance their legitimacy in a way that would hamper rather than help our efforts."

The last time the U.S. tried to overtly use the Olympics to achieve a political end was in 1980, when President Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Given the futility of that gesture—the Soviet army remained in Afghanistan for another decade, and the Eastern bloc repaid Carter's gesture with a boycott of the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles—one would think American politicians had learned a simple lesson: The Games are a great spectacle but a clumsy tool of diplomacy.