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The Olympics and Human Rights

The opening ceremony for the London Olympics was an impressive display last night, focused as it was on the development of Britain. It was not without questions (were there really super wealthy industrialists of African descent in the 1800s? Are we really glorifying those super wealthy industrialists anyway? Is there really going to be no acknowledgement of British imperialism?) and controversy (the ceremony featured the National Health Service in a way that a number of people have interpreted as a tribute to socialism.Then (as always) there was the parade of nations accompanied by some rather embarrassing and ill-informed commentary by the NBC broadcasters–frankly, a wasted opportunity. Then more music, some speeches, the torch, and fireworks. All in all, a wonderful spectacle.

One of the human interest stories that has come out of the Olympics this year is that for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia allowed female athletes to participate in the Olympics. A news story pointed out that Saudi Arabia is not the only country never to send female athletes (the others are Qatar and Brunei Darussalam), but had originally intended to send female athletes through a loophole in the rules so that, rather than competing as Saudi’s, they would compete as independent athletes, as several are this year, including Guor Marial, a runner from South Sudan (Unsurprisingly, South Sudan has had some more pressing issues to deal with than forming an Olympic committee). Eventually Saudi Arabia gave in and allowed the women to compete as Saudis.

I find the Olympics to be a bizarre event because of the nationalistic fervor it inspires, despite limiting the importance of men’s soccer. Moreover, the Olympics encourage people to drink, cheer, watch, and otherwise support “sports” like badminton, canoe, figure skating, and curling (all impressive athletic displays to watch, but I hesitate to call them sports). I enjoy the Olympics, but usually with a little bit of confused detachment. I also understand that the Olympics are political and more flash than substance, but I cannot help to read a number of social and economic disparities, particularly because the IOC actually has rules in place to enable Olympic bans for discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, or gender ( levied against Afghanistan in 200, and South Africa from 1964-1992). Additionally, there is a nod to gender equality in the Youth Olympics since every country to enter must have at least one female representative.1

The most obvious disparity is the total number of athletes competing for some teams, and the makeup of those teams in that some of the teams have just two or three athletes, while others have more than five hundred. This does have a lot to do with the total number of people in a country, but it often seems more directly related to the gross economic power of the nation (just my speculation). The more insidious disparity are the countries who send a massively disproportionate number of men to women–and that there are still several countries never to have sent a woman (Afghanistan has begun to allow women to participate since the fall of the Taliban), and the fact that countries with horrific human rights records and active civil wars are still allowed to participate. Syria has a delegation, Rwanda competed on both sides of the civil war during which there were acts of genocide,2 China is (still) occupying Tibet, Somalia has competed in every summer Olympics since 1996 despite the ongoing civil war (that prevented it from competing in 1992), Sri Lanka participates despite the twenty six year war with the Tamils (who were staging a rebellion or a war for their freedom, depending on your point of view), Zaire participated in the 1996 Olympics only months before Joseph Mobutu fled in the face of the militia formed by Laurent-Desire Kabila (formed after the Zaire army launched a campaign against them–the country continued to compete as the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite an extremely questionable human rights record afterward), North Korea competes despite forcing athletes to stay within their own compound,3 and some people believe that Israel’s actions toward Lebanon and the Palestinians warrant a ban. The list is incomplete, but you get the idea.

I suspect that the IOC realizes that it is basically impotent, which is why when there are civil wars, coup d’etats, or revolutions, the IOC is more likely to simply update the database and allow them to compete than actually take a stand. At the same time, it took a stand in the past over apartheid and about the way that the Taliban treated women, and has written rules about moral stands against discrimination. But these are the exceptions and, despite the opportunity to sometimes see the opportunity to watch an athlete from some third world country triumph over the giants industrialized world, the Olympics end up being dominated by the first- and industrializing world. To see this disparity and to be reminded of countries that are starving (at best, sometimes) or in active civil war only to have the IOC turn a blind eye, much as the rest of the world does, tarnishes some of the nationalistic spectacle that the Olympics endeavor to be.

One of the requirements in Classical Greece was that wars were put on hold for the duration of the Olympics. There was no ban for human rights violations or requirement that each state solved all its problems before competing, but there was an assumption that the problems of the world would be put on hold for the time. The idea was that the participants would be set aside their problems, not turn a blind eye. The modern development, though, strikes me in many ways a colossal waste when there is an active disinterest on the part of the world in any humanistic impulse.


1As an interesting aside, for the first time ever there are more female Olympians on the US team than men. It is hard to deny that Title IX has worked for women’s athletics.
2Not genocide, technically, since the western world would be treaty bound to intervene if it was genocide. Acts of genocide are different and do not obligate the treaty signatories to intervene. In a hopeful story this time around, though, the Rwandan flag-bearer is a survivor of the genocide.
3An article on Gawker brings up a good point about North Korea in that against all odds, the women’s contingent of that delegation is very strong.