Politics and Games make uneasy mix

Olympic platforms should be for medals, not politicians

White House spokeswoman Dana Perrino delivered another straight-faced howler last week by stating that the Olympics “are a sporting event, for the athletes.”

The Olympics are, and have always been, a helluva lot more than that. But it is still a very dumb idea to consciously muck them up with politics.

Visitors to China have surely noticed the massive renovation efforts under way there, as the government attempts to transform Beijing into a sprawling amusement park in time for the Games.

The Chinese, of course, are hardly the first to use the Olympics for propaganda purposes. Throughout the years, the Games have not just tested athletic skill but been that rare showcase spanning every section of newspapers around the world. During the Cold War, the Games functioned as war by proxy, birthing jokes about the unfairness of Soviet judges that endure to this day.

Goals of promoting amateur athletics and competing for God and country have mostly shriveled. NBA and NHL all-stars now populate the Olympic basketball and hockey teams, and multimillion-dollar endorsement deals await gold medalists — who come with prepackaged “up close and personal” stories. The coverage has become bloated and the opening ceremonies a Cirque du Soleil act.

In addition to such personal paydays, the Olympics are an enormous business, providing a flag-waving showcase for corporate sponsors. NBC committed $5.5 billion for broadcast rights from the start of this century through 2012, spraying obscure events — Equestrian riding! Wrestling! Maybe even equestrian wrestling! — across its broadcast and cable nets to maximize the investment.

Putting such cynicism aside, though, there is something fundamentally good and noble at the Games’ core — an ideal seldom achieved but still worth aspiring to — that politicians and activists undermine at their peril.

Pressure is mounting for another public expression of disapproval this year, with world leaders at the least boycotting the Summer Games’ opening ceremonies to send a message to the Chinese government regarding its human-rights transgressions.

Using the attention focused on China as leverage to ventilate these issues is wise, but boycotting the Games is not.

Because, at the risk of sounding naive, athletes setting aside geopolitics for the unifying purpose of sport does have merit. In a troubled world, seeing smiling youths march around a stadium together laughing and videotaping the crowd can still choke you up.

For those who want to glimpse the best of what the Olympic movement embodies, check out Bud Greenspan’s “16 Days of Glory” — chronicling the 1984 Games in Los Angeles — which remains the definitive documentary of its kind. (ESPN will highlight the octogenarian filmmaker’s contributions in “Bud Greenspan: The Heart of the Games,” a special airing in May.)

Widening his lens beyond just those adorned in gold, Greenspan could find beauty and poetry in someone merely finishing a race. As Olympic committee chair Peter V. Ueberroth told the New York Times, Greenspan recognized “magic in the remarkable stories of young people who come together from every corner of the globe to compete … in the spirit of friendship and peace.”

It’s fine to highlight China’s abuses, reminding everyone that despite the image Beijing is desperately working to convey, it is not the happiest place on Earth. That aim can be achieved, however, without jeopardizing the fragile spirit captured by Greenspan’s films.

By all means, protest. And when that’s over, let the Games begin.

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