No Politics in Beijing?

Carlos-Smith.jpgIt is night in Beijing. Men walk up to a line. Some shake their heads left and right to loosen up. Others roll shoulders and shake arms. They all settle and crouch at the line. The gun sounds. The men race. Just over twenty seconds later two British men have finished second and third. Later when they receive their medals, they raise their hands as a political statement. Wait, that won’t happen.

Remember Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and the Mexico City Olympics? O.K. neither do I. I was not born yet. Still the image and the impact of the event stuck around long enough that I knew about it growing up. And the image of their stance on the medal podium is still powerful.

According to the Daily Mail “British Olympic chiefs are to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China’s appalling human rights record – or face being banned from travelling to Beijing.” The Mail also reports that a British football team was ordered to give the Nazi salute in 1938. Last as of the Mail’s article of February 10 the British Olympic Association stated that “any athlete who refuses to sign the agreements will not be allowed to travel to Beijing.” The BOA seems to have backed off the position and claims it will not gag the athletes.

So maybe the British and Australians (who also are asking their athletes to make no political comments) just want to get along with everyone and Canada, the United States, the Netherlands and Belgium are willing to allow speech. But, before folks in the U.S. and elsewhere jump in and proclaim superiority, remember that at least in the United States, much of the country shunned Messrs. Smith and Carlos after their moment of speech.

The Olympics seek to be non-political. And perhaps athletes should not use the venue for their political speech. Then again so little today is viewed as unconnected and anyone in the spotlight seems to be a voice for something maybe that apolitical ideal is not so real. The film Chariots of Fire has a key moment when Eric Liddle (born in China by the way) one of the runners refuses to run on the Sabbath. The position caused an uproar in the film although he apparently knew of the problem and trained for the 400m earlier. In other words, when one has a moment, a moment when the world is watching, and believes in something would a piece of paper stop one from saying what must be said? Who knows? Maybe that same sense of duty would make the words stick in one’s throat. Maybe the best way to show up the host county is to demonstrate excellence and win. But excellence takes many forms. One could win and still wish to make an excellent, decent, maybe even respectful comment that shows the world something is wrong but without vitriol. A raised fist may do just that.

Whatever mode of expression is best, demanding that someone sign a piece of paper to give up one’s speech runs contrary to the excellence the Olympics seeks to foster and ask of athletes and perhaps by extension of us all.

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9 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    If the political realm cannot accord some voice to the voiceless, if it cannot accommodate democratic desires and sincere attempts to realize the common good, then all fora throughout civil society, be they conventionally political or not, risk being used for the expression of those principles and values that demand political realization. For better and worse, politics is everywhere and no social space is immune from its causes and effects. This is especially true if we appreciate the fact that the loci of political power, in the end and in the beginning, are found throughout our social world: the fact that today the State is a concentrated locus and focus of such power as is surrendered by default, “consent” and coercion from its sources throughout society (as Foucault explained, the rise of current power relationships is traceable to specific local practices)–from individuals as individuals and as members of associations and collectivites of one sort or another that are now in a symbiotic relation with the State–in no way precludes the possibility that they may seek to re-claim for themselves that which was “given” or “taken” from them by the State (In any case, some measure or residue of power always remains in our hands, as Gandhi, for one, showed us; indeed, as one of my former teachers wrote, ‘The State has a distinct power of direction but its effectiveness depends on the ability to elicit other forms of power to support its own.’). Put another way, as Todd May writes in The Political Philosophy of Poststructualist Anarchism (1994), “the widening of the political field of which anarchists, feminists, and poststructuralists speak is not only a quantitative widening, but a qualitative widening as well. Power not only intervenes in more places; its intervention is of different types.”

    In short, if the Olympics in China becomes a venue for political expression, so be it.

  2. “But, before folks in the U.S. and elsewhere jump in and proclaim superiority, remember that at least in the United States, much of the country shunned Messrs. Smith and Carlos after their moment of speech.”

    So what? Out of a nascent appreciation for political correctness, should people have stifled their communication of displeasure with Smith’s and Carlos’ actions? With speech comes reaction – all part of the free speech package.

    …but I am interested in your mention of Canada allowing speech…I assume that such free speech only goes as far as no favored minority being offended – so while the Canadian athletes can presumably blast the US all they want, I’m guessing any mention of Muslims brings an automatic invite to one their vaunted Human Rights Commissions.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    I forgot to mention that I was 11 yrs. young when this occurred and it left a deep impression on me, as did the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War more generally. The maxim from Wordsworth, “The child is father to the man,” rings true in my case.

    Re: “So what?”–

    Well, Smith and Carlos engaged in a thoughtful act of political protest that reflected a dignity and integrity utterly lacking in those who chose to chastise them with acts of ostracism, death threats, and verbal viciousness. If only those who disagreed with their actions displayed a thimbleful of the class and comportment of Smith and Carlos, as well as the sociologist Harry Edwards who inspired them, they might have demonstrated that they too understood and cherished the constitutional value of free speech. Alas, those who expressed their displeasure reveled in mendacity and meanness befitting a culture that has reconciled Calvinist Christianity with Malthusian Social Darwinism.

    For the counter-cultural and civil rights seedbed in which Edwards’ Olympic Project for Human Rights was germinated, please see, among other contributions, Jo Freeman’s essay, “From Freedom Now! to Free Speech: The FSM’s Roots in the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement,” in Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik, eds. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002): 73-82.

  4. Howard Wasserman says:

    I do not think the Olympics ever have been non-political. But countries want to control the political messages that are expressed and how they are expressed; they do not want to leave those choices to individual athletes. In part, there is a concern for international relations (do not embarrass the host country); in part, this is just about controlling the message.

    By the way, the third person in that photo is Silver Medalist Peter Norman–ironically, an Australian. He knew what Smith and Carlos planned and lent them his gloves in support.

  5. Edward Swaine says:

    1. Point of clarification: to my Wikistanding, Peter Norman did not lend his black gloves (not a usual part of the track kit), but suggested that the two American athletes share the pair that one had remembered to bring. But I could be wrong. The important point, I guess, is that he was supportive.

    2. Points of distinction: Smith and Carlos used the stand to protest conditions in their own country; this was thought (mistakenly, in my view) to show disloyalty or a lack of patriotism, whereas protesting conditions in the host state raises such issues only if some team-based edict is disobeyed (and objection is more likely to be made in terms of courtesy and diplomacy). Also, official sanctioning was initiated by the IOC, not the US, albeit at the best of an American with a long and checkered history on every issue that the Smith and Carlos protest posed. The common issue is the place of politics and speech in the Olympics, but there are important differences.

    3. I do not pretend to know how this relates to Foucault, Gandhi, Calvin, or Malthus.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Re: 3 above

    But at least you possess a snarky sense of your limitations.

  7. Howard Wasserman says:


    You are right; I stand corrected. I knew the right story 18 months ago when I wrote this:

    I should have re-read it before I posted.

  8. Joseph Slater says:

    Reminds me to be proud of my college, Oberlin, for hiring Smith as a track coach after this event.

  9. Tim Jackson says:

    Politics is just the ploy of divide and rule, giving a false sense of freedom of speech when if you look at what people say in the west it is just an echo of pervasive propaganda programming that ignores the far worse actions of one’s own governments.