thoughts on the olympics

torch in SF (borrowed image)
I feel compelled to comment here, in some way, however small, on the Olympic Torch. I feel compelled because (a) it is inextricably linked to Tibet now, and by extension the Dalai Lama and Buddhism and I’m a Buddhist; and (b) it is, right now, as I write this, on its way through San Francisco, a mer twelve miles away. And, hell, I found myself compelled to write about Apple’s adoption of Intel chips for Christ’s sake. I should be even slightly more concerned about the suffering caused by the PRC.

So. Here goes.

First, I have to vehemently disagree with anyone out there who still believes that the Olympics are “not political” or that they represent some Platonic ideal of “sportsmanship” or “international brotherhood” or other such lofty ideals. The fact of the matter is that the Olympics are political because everything is political (in the “sociological, relations of power sense,” if not the literal “nation-state” sense). When the IOC said that China could not host the games until they cleaned up their human rights record, the IOC themselves were inextricably uniting the Olympics to political, sociological, and down-right un-sportsmanlike issues.

Moreover, even if they weren’t explicitly connected to political issues, the Olympics haven’t been about “pure” sports in just about forever. The “amateur” athletes who participate in the games are heavily funded by corporate sponsors. And the games themselves wouldn’t even get off the ground were it not for advertising dollars. If you watch the games, I challenge you to count the number of product placements. And I’m not talking about the commercials. I’m talking about corporate logos in the stadiums, on the equipment, on the athletes themselves. (I should state here that I don’t think that there is necessarily anything wrong with corporate sponsorship. But anyone who says that the Olympics are about just the games and not a ton of money and political capital are fooling themselves.)

Having said all that, having cleared the air here and acknowledged that whatever the Olympics might have to say about athletic competition, they are also about politics (power) and consumerism (money), the question then comes to China. And Tibet.

To be honest, I don’t know what to do about TIbet. Tibet is a thorny issue. It’s a lot like Iraq, truth be told. There are no easy answers. I know we all want easy answers on this one. We want “Free Tibet” to be simple — the Chinese leave and Tibet becomes its own nation (again). But that’s not really a simple proposition. If it was, then perhaps the Dalai Lama would be arguing for an independent Tibet and not an autonomous Tibet. Sure. I’d like a free Tibet, too, but what does that mean? What does it look like? How do we get there, even if it is possible? So, I don’t know. All I can think is sad, sad, sad.

On the other side of the coin, of course, is China. This massive, rapidly growing, increasingly post-post-modern industrialized super power poised to set the world agenda for decades to come. When the U.S. economy finally collapses, will they be “running the world” in the way we have been for the past forty-plus years? And if so, well, that makes all of these issues pretty significant, no? Olympics or not, what China does, despite its rhetoric of “Tibet is an internal problem,” is actually pretty damned important, if you think about it. Every American could trade their car in for a bicycle tomorrow and that wouldn’t make much of a difference to fight global warming if China continues on its current environmental course. (Hyperbole, I know, but you get my point.)

Which, in the end, is all my way of saying that China matters. Tibet matters. Burma, Darfur, all of this matter because China is no longer a small, isolated communist regime. And the United States is no longer an isolationist nation that can afford to turn a blind eye to international affairs. We live in an increasingly interconnected and socio-economic global system. None of us is immune or free of blame when comes to human-rights violations.

So the Olympics matter.

They matter because they’re both political and economic. So this brings us to the question of a general “boycott.” And what the hell does a boycott mean or look like?

I read a comment in a letter to the editor or a blog comment or something earlier today that basically said to boycott the Olympics all you have to do is avoid buying anything that says “Made in China.” And I laughed because, really, do you know how incredibly difficult that is? I don’t mean because there are so many products produced in China that we just simply cannot live without. I mean that virtually every product you purchase, even ones that say “Made in the U.S.A.,” are in point of fact conglomerates of products made around the world.

Take my trusty little iPod. Here’s a product that was, as the packaging so proudly declares, “Designed in California,” but the parts were assembled in China. The parts themselves (the tiny little hard drive, the chips, the plastic casing, etc.) may or may not have been made in China. The hard drive was likely put together in the Philippines. The RAM was likely bought from Samsung, a Korean company; but the RAM itself may have been built in Taiwan. All these parts are only put together in China. And this doesn’t even take into account the software to run the device which may have initially been dreamt up in California but could have been outsourced to anywhere. And when it breaks and I call up customer support, guess where “Steve” is when he answers the phone?

So how do you get away from China? How do you boycott? Do you stop watching NBC? Buying Coke? Adidas? Trade in your Volkswagen Beetle?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, there is something misguided in projecting our outrage on “the torch.” It seems to me that trying to crash that party and extinguish the flame might make the front page, but it isn’t really going to change anything. The games will go on; the PRC will continue doing all those things that give us a bad taste in our mouths; Tibet will be neither independent or autonomous. There must be some other way.

And yet, at the same time, it seems pretty clear to me that all this increased global attention on China has, if nothing else, galvanized a movement. It’s brought up these pretty tough issues for the world to actually discuss. I don’t think there’s any one answer to all of these question. But having the chance to actually try and find some answers is a surefire way to making some real and lasting changes out there in the world.

So do what you can. Work for peace. Work for change.

2 thoughts on “thoughts on the olympics

  1. I agree with pretty much all what you said except the comment about the United States economy finally collapsing. China will almost certainly pass the US someday to become the largest economy in the world. Most economists feel that will happen around 2050 to 2070. China is expected to pass Japan within the next 20 years.

    However, due to a global world economy, the US economy will not collapse. Actually China needs a strong US economy in order to support their own. The world economy is too intertwined for the US or England or China’s economy to collapse.

  2. Thanks Jon.

    Hey, what can I say? I’m not an economist! And I think you’ll agree that your comments about the “world economy” and my comments about iPods are more or less saying the same thing.

    “The economy collapsing” is as much blogging-hyperbole as my Americans trading in cars for bikes comments.

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