Pawn in the Games


According to Lisa Forrest’s recently published Boycott, the Australian Olympic Federation’s refusal to boycott the Moscow Olympics in 1980 was a sound one. Forrest, who was a tender 16 at the time, was Australia’s swimming captain.

Her views provide a neat starter for discussions about a potential boycott of the Beijing Olympics – something she, and many in the sporting fraternity, would rather not see. Even Malcolm Fraser, who insisted on an Australian boycott of the Moscow Games, has recanted his position.

Despite Australia’s reluctance to even consider a boycott in response to China’s brutal repression in Tibet, there is a growing international movement in favour of doing so. French President Nicolas Sarkozy got things going with his suggestion last week that the boycott option be put on the table. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, has suggested targeting the opening ceremony.

Forrest’s Boycott is a morality tale, in which, in David Marr’s words, the "Cold War meets a kid from Cromer – and she wins." With the Eastern Bloc’s steroid-fed superstars, it was hard to avoid the fact that political ambition and sporting prowess were one and the same. But for Forrest, the debate about boycotting the Moscow Olympics over the USSR’s actions in Afghanistan was beside the point.

If one can see how ineffectual it was then, she may have a point. Ditto, it follows, the Los Angeles Games of 1984 in the aftermath of US policies against Grenada. The Olympic spirit of peace was duly given its marching orders, but Forrest could still see herself and her fellow athletes as "anti-establishment" heroes who "were on a crusade to save the Olympics".

The underlining premise of Forrest’s position is that sport repels, not attracts, political engagement. It should take place in an independent space. But sporting representatives, especially Olympians, are for better or worse pawns in broader political and social conflict. At best, they receive, as Richard Hinds points out, "government hand-outs for training facilities, travel and medal-winning incentive schemes." Far from being rebellious, they are scrupulously conformist; well-groomed show ponies.

Forrest’s tunnel-visioned appraisal of sport is a hermetic delusion. With this, she shares common ground with John Howard, who tended to see sport and politics as distinctly independent fields of endeavour. When the Whitlam Government intervened to prevent an Australian cricket tour of South Africa, the young backbencher Howard made an indignant parliamentary speech, saying he was greatly "disappointed" at the cancellation. "Preventing cricket contests" would do little to break down apartheid.

Things got a bit muddled with the Howard government’s refusal to allow Australian cricketers to travel to Zimbabwe for a one-day tournament in 2007. "The Mugabe regime," Howard argued, was "behaving like the Gestapo towards its political opponents". To let the tour go ahead would have provided "an enormous boost to this grubby dictator". For Howard, sport in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was of a different moral order to sport in apartheid-era South Africa.

The Munich games of 1936 – when, it could be argued, the current Olympic format was designed – was a spectacle of totalitarian self-advertising. The parading sporting figures we see every four years follow a modified version of the programmes developed at that Olympics – a rehearsed, fascist political routine, a testament to humanity’s love of a good parade.

As Richard Mandell suggests in a work on those games, international athletes, from Americans to Indians, became instruments of a Nazi spectacle of the body beautiful. Initial suggestions of a boycott over the exclusion of Jewish athletes were quashed.

The Beijing Olympics promises to be yet another political bonanza, equipped with one reminder from 1936: a huge 16-mile axial design by Albert Speer Jr linking the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Olympic Park. The son of the Third Reich’s most resourceful architect was resigned: "The comparisons with my father are unfortunately unavoidable."

The Chinese want the Olympics for reasons of image; others, for reasons of reform. Some think that seeing hulking pieces of flesh sweating on a track or lithely gliding through a pool will democratise China, or at the very least "open it up". This view is as absurd as the claim that cricket "civilised" the colonies by adding grace, poise and the wardrobe of a gentleman to the "dark races".

On the other hand, a measured boycott in the same vein as that used against South Africa may have more potency. But Australia’s love for the Olympic binge is such that our participation is assured, irrespective of political circumstances.

Australia’s taut, determined athletes, clad in their new speed suits, are eager for battle. Besides, breaking the bones of a Tibetan monk is evidently less heinous than confiscating the farmlands of white Zimbabweans.

If the Olympic sporting fraternity are rebellious, as Forrest claims, they will stay home. Beijing, through its actions, has conceded that politics and sport – far from being mutually exclusive – are often joined at the hip. "The recent riots in Lhasa and other parts of the country," said Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, "were aimed at undermining the upcoming Beijing Olympics."

We can only hope so.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.