Column: Political implications for games

Published 9:32 am Monday, June 2, 2008

Let the political games begin.

Typically writers stay away from clichés, yet as this year’s Beijing Olympics approach, there seems to be one cliché that is particularly inappropriate.

It’s just a game, or in this case, games.

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With dozens of countries and thousands of athletes from every religion, heritage and system of government across the globe gathering in a single place for three weeks, the Olympics are more than a game, just as college holds more than simply an academic experience.

Exhaustive media coverage of China’s every political move proves it.

The Opening Ceremony Games of the XXIX Olympiad are just four months away from the 8-8-08 kickoff (at 8:08 p.m. local time), and a historically government-controlled country is experiencing the mass politicization that comes with mass media scrutiny that inevitably comes with hosting the world’s games.

Add some political tensions, regime based on controlling almost every element of its borders, and the world has an upcoming Olympiad that could come to a boil in the heat of summer. Controversy in Tibet is one reason China is getting a heavy dose of scrutiny.

Probably the most difficult to dissect is the Tibet issue, which is usually approached differently, depending on who’s writing about it.

Tibet, which has been occupied by China since 1949, has experienced protests by a radical minority calling for an autonomous rule.

In typical international wire reports, China is bullying Tibet protesters and exile groups, some of which are funded by the U.S. Congress’ National Endowment for Democracy, according to China scholar Barry Sautman.

It’s been reported as a “crackdown” by several major media outlets. Readers and reporters are often operating on the assumption that the Chinese government will by any means necessary quash any message it doesn’t like. While freedom of expression in China is far less free than the protections our First Amendment provides, other messages can be exchanged and less conventional arguments can be made in the country’s borders.

The aforementioned word, crackdown, may be an apt word to define the Chinese government’s actions. But the Tibetan Youth Congress protests began violently by torching shops in Lhasa, Tibet, owned by Muslim Chinese.

Again, crackdown is appropriate. But what government wouldn’t issue a police crackdown on violent rioters?

Footage of the protests pegged most of the assailants in their late teens or early 20s, again reinforcing that the separatist ideal through violence is not a Tibet-wide phenomenon. To be fair, there are deep-seeded issues in this region, and the Olympics are calling attention to something that needs a closer examination, but a small part of the Tibet equation — and the Chinese government’s subsequent action against a rebel group — has been grossly overplayed in the western media.

Propaganda and Chinese government are synonymous to westerners, not without reason. What may surprise more people is that many of the media reports U.S. newspapers receive are guilty of the reverse — lack of background based on a long history of a relatively small group of people.

Although the International Olympic Committee vows remain apolitical, ironically the Olympics are probably the biggest political stage the world can offer.

There are plenty other issues the media will address, too. China’s press. Human rights. Free flow of information. Health and safety of everyday products and food. Pollution. Poverty. And countless others within a country of 1.3 billion.

All thanks to a bunch of games.

Nathan Cooper will leave June 21 for Beijing and return on Aug. 30 to cover the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. He is a part-time Tribune employee and a 2005 graduate of Glenville-Emmons High School.