Of Steven Spielberg and Jesse Owens

The news that Steven Spielberg has ended his association with the Beijing Olympics seems to be all over the international news, though not surprisingly hasn’t got much attention in the Chinese media as far as I can tell.

Certainly Mr. Spielberg is a free human being and allowed to choose his business and artistic endeavors by whatever criteria he wants. And it is also certainly true that the situation in Sudan is a monumental human tragedy. It is also true that China has many ties with Sudan, though it is far from certain whether China’s connection is a help or hindrance to the situation in Darfur. It is also far from certain whether China could do anything different that would improve things; if external factors like that were effective, surely the words and actions of dozens of other countries would have done some good by now – which doesn’t appear to be the case.

I know that historically, the modern Olympics have been used for political purposes. We’ve had countries boycotting the competition because of attitudes toward the host country quite a few times, but did the USSR pull out of Afghanistan because some countries wouldn’t go to Moscow in 1980? I think other factors caused their retreat, and the main result of the boycott was to deny worthy athletes their chance on the world stage. If Jesse Owens had refused to go to Germany because of the Nazis’ racist views, the world would have been denied the far more powerful statement he made by winning there.

But just because politics has intersected with the Olympics in the past doesn’t mean it should continue to do so. The whole ideal of the Olympic movement is that when it comes to sporting competition, everyone can come together without regard to relations between their homelands. Of course this may be an impossible ideal, but that doesn’t mean it should be abandoned. And let’s face it: if there was a boycott by every person and every nation that had a grievance with another nation participating, there would be no one on the fields at all. The world is far from a harmonious place. And I firmly believe that you gain more by engagement than by silence – when did “we refuse to talk to you until you agree with us on everything” ever solve an issue?

The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games is an actual government agency here, so I can’t argue that dealing with BOCOG is not the same as dealing with the country’s leadership. But I would be dreaming if I felt that BOCOG has any influence over China’s foreign policy. Spielberg’s statements perhaps embarrass China’s leaders a little (very little, I’m guessing, in spite of what Western media say), but it would be still more dreaming to think that a little embarrassment is going to change their policies. They’re so used to Western media badmouthing them on any number of issues that they’ve developed pretty thick skin. Spielberg could make just as powerful a statement without quitting; he would put China in the position of continuing to deal with him in spite of his statements or the embarrassment of firing him (which might be greater than that caused by his quitting). His withdrawal makes it easy for China and BOCOG to take the high ground:
"Some people are attempting to link the Darfur issue with Chinese government policies in Sudan, even with the organisation of the Olympics. If they don't know the Chinese policy, I can understand. But if they have got some objectives, especially political objectives, we cannot accept that." – Liu Jianchao, Foreign Ministry spokesman. Read more.
The bottom line, of course, is that none of this makes one whit of difference. The Opening Ceremonies will start on August 8, 2008 at 8:08pm with or without their famous American consultant, and will no doubt be spectacular. Putting on an impressive show is something they know how to do in this country. Spielberg’s statements will not change China’s policy and will not help ease any suffering in Darfur. Maybe it will assuage his own conscience a bit, but in the world outside of his head, nothing is accomplished.

OK, that’s enough ranting for now. I sincerely hope someone can come up with words and actions that really do matter.

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