07 April 2008

The only Torch in town

The last 48 hours have seen some pretty appalling pictures of police brutality and state-endorsed censorship in London and Paris. As hundreds of protesters attempt to disrupt the passage of the Olympic Torch in both cities, we have seen police remove Tibetan flags and banners along the route, or anything else that would cause offense to the Chinese government, and violently remove the more vocal protesters. The torch itself is flanked on its passage by armed and armored police and Chinese security officials, and preceded by security teams that are doing their utmost to sanitize the route for Chinese television viewers. The question needs to be asked that if the population in a given city does not support the passage of the torch through that city, then what purpose does its passage serve?

The history of the torch relay begins with the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Goebbels conceived of the idea of the flame being passed from Olympia to Berlin as symbolizing the passage of Aryan authority from the ancient Greeks to modern Germans. The relay itself passed through a number of countries both friendly and hostile to Germany, but was used mainly to strengthen ties between Germany and the Germanic population in that country, most notably in Austria where a rally to welcome the arrival of the torch culminated in public calls for Anschluss. The torch relay was filmed and choreographed by Leni Riefenstahl, and served in its entirety to project German power throughout the world.

The parallels with the current Chinese relay are obvious, and national governments are falling over themselves to facilitate China's chest-beating, silencing and assaulting their own citizens in the process.

Why should we in Ireland care? Our neutrality means that we have a long history of separating sport from politics, happily attending both the 1984 LA and 1980 Moscow Olympics, in spite of close allies boycotting both. Pat Hickey, President of the Irish Olympic Council, opposes an Irish boycott, and argues that they don't work. However the point of a protest is not always to achieve victory, more often it is to act on one's conscience in spite of the impossibility of victory.

As it happens Ireland was actually the first country to boycott the Olympic games, 100 years ago at the 1908 London games. The games were originally due to be held in Rome, however the eruption of Mount Vesuvius diverted funds away from the games to help reconstruct the city of Naples. London was selected to host the games at the last minute and Irish athletes, although not officially a team unto themselves, refused to participate as part of the United Kingdom team in protest over the lack of Home Rule for Ireland. While it was highly unlikely that such a boycott would force either the government or public opinion to change, the athletes themselves acted on their conscience and refused to participate.

As the daily news of death and violence in Chinese-occupied Tibet and neighboring provinces grows, and national governments abdicate their responsibility to press for change, it is up to individuals to act on their conscience. I will not be watching the Games in August, and while my action will have no impact at least I know I will not be part of the problem.

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