Tibet, the Torch, and an Olympic Boycott

The Olympic torch arrived in London today, AP reports (via the IHT). It has already left a string of protests in its path, first in Greece and then in Istanbul, Turkey. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said he will welcome the torch outside of 10 Downing Street tomorrow, but Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell says that’s not an endorsement of China’s Tibet policy. From LiveNews.com.au:

“Meeting the torch is not in any way condoning the completely unacceptable aspects of the human rights regime in the denial of democracy and freedoms in China,” she said.

“I think it’s very important to be clear about that.”

On the other side of the English Channel French President Nicholas Sarkozy still hasn’t made up his mind whether or not he plans to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “Everything is open”, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Saturday, according to AFP:

It had seemed France was stepping up the pressure on Beijing, with Yade quoted in the Le Monde newspaper saying Sarkozy would only attend the opening ceremony if China opens dialogue with exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and frees political prisoners.

China must also end the “violence” against Tibetans, Yade reportedly told Le Monde, saying all three conditions were “indispensable” if Sarkozy was to be at the opening ceremony in August 8.

Yade later denied she had used the term “conditions” in her interview with Le Monde, which said for its part it had “faithfully transcribed” her words.

She also later said in a statement that, “The president has said that all options are open…”

Back in London, literary editor of the Telegraph, Sam Leith, had harsh words for China in an op-ed today titled, “We should subject China to an Olympic boycott”:

And, though I hear and understand the arguments that making a political stand over the Olympics unfairly penalises the athletes and politicises sport, I don’t agree with them. The Olympics is already political, whatever wet-lipped witterings about the Corinthian spirit you may hear.

It is the most politics-saturated event in the whole of sport; the most political event you could conceive of. The very basis of competition is a political formation: the nation state. The decision to host it is taken by governments, the pitch funded by governments, and the boon to the host state is not economic advantage but national prestige. What’s “above politics” about that?

Yes, it does seem unfair that innocent Olympians – athletes who have worked hard and for whom competing in Beijing will represent a lifetime dream – would be the ones most penalised by an boycott of some sort, while the hundreds of businesses whose trade with China directly contributes to the regime would go happily about their business.

But the fact is that the Olympics are – as the China government knows full well – a uniquely visible opportunity for the community of civilised nations to choose whether it gives the leadership of this revolting regime a slap on the back or a slap in the face.

So to those self-declared sophisticates who say that boycotting the Olympics would be “a futile gesture”, I say: damn right. A futile gesture, visible round the world, would be just about the ticket.

And in default of an Olympic boycott it is my fervent hope that, somewhere along its London route, a brave protester – or, better yet, its bearer – takes the Olympic torch captive and extinguishes its silly flame in a puddle.

After its stop in London, the Olympic torch will head to Paris and then San Fransisco, where protesters participated today in the “Human Rights Torch Relay,” designed to draw attention to China’s alleged torture and imprisonment of religious and political dissidents, according to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Among the torchbearers at Saturday’s relay was John Carlos, the bronze medal-winning sprinter known for raising his fist as a symbol of black power at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The Board of Supervisors recently passed a nonbinding resolution protesting China’s human rights record and calling for an investigation into China’s actions in Tibet and its treatment of dissidents.

Mayor Gavin Newsom has called the opportunity to host the Olympics torch an extraordinary honor, saying the flame is about sports, not politics.