The discredited fantasy of the Olympic ideal

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Perhaps one day some javelin-thrower appointed by the gods will just manage to cover the distance separating the ideals and the practices of the Olympic movement. But he was not to be seen in Moscow's Red Square yesterday when, with protesters against the rape of Tibet and serial violations of human rights safely under lock and key, China was awarded the 29th modern Games.

He was plainly absent, as he was when Berlin was allowed to stage an Olympics dedicated to the master race theories of Hitler in 1936 and the hard-line Soviet government of Leonid Brezhnev received sustenance from the Games of 1980. Yet was that really sustenance – or a not-insignificant nudge towards the liberalisation of a society long denied the most basic access to the ways of the rest of the world?

Defenders of the decision by the International Olympic Committee yesterday will emphatically argue the latter proposition, and there is certainly a case to say that if the games were awarded only to the politically pure its history would have been short indeed.

Blood ran in the streets of Mexico City as hundreds of students were shot dead and buried in anonymous graves before the 1968 Games; in Seoul, in 1988 – a brilliantly organised Games – the eyes smarted with the tear gas of security forces putting down student protest. Mrs Thatcher attempted to boycott the Moscow Games, but said nothing about suspending trade until the Soviet tanks withdrew from Afghanistan – and did the American boycott make that benighted country a better place in which to live? How many southern American blacks were lynched during the Games of St Louis in 1904 and Los Angeles in 1932, or executed in, say, Texas, during those of Atlanta in 1996?

The truth is that the Olympics Games have never been able to do more than hold up a mirror to the world in which they operate, and there is neither time nor space to list all the examples of this. Enough, maybe, to recall the astonishment of many athletes when they were told to proceed with the Olympics of Munich in 1972, when Israeli athletes and coaches had been massacred by the Palestine splinter group Black September, and then, four years later, when tearful young Africans were ordered home by their governments even as the opening parade filed into Montreal's Olympic stadium.

The idea that the Olympics are somehow above the worst that the world can produce is a long-discredited fantasy. Soon the Winter Olympics, won for Salt Lake City with the help of outrageous corruption, will unfold against the conviction of many that the movement has applied no more than a cosmetic touch to the venality they exposed so gut-wrenchingly.

Thirteen years ago in Seoul the now-retiring president Juan Antonio Samaranch, once a member of General Franco's government, swore that the Olympics would fight "drugs to the death" after the 100-metres champion Ben Johnson was found guilty of doping. Such belief could not be sustained last year, even in the otherwise wonderfully uplifting Games of Sydney.

The reality in Moscow yesterday was unchanging. China beat Toronto and Paris, Istanbul and Osaka, not because its humans rights record was anything other than an ongoing horror story. Not because there were even the vaguest promises of improvement in that area. But because China produced an extremely polished bid and because it is seen as a place of dazzling commercial prospects, for both the Olympics and such long-time sponsors as Coca-Cola.

Who knows the state of China, and the world, in seven years? But the world will still be rolling on, as will the Olympics. The fireworks will be extraordinary. So, probably, will be the organisation of the Games. Human rights? It is not an Olympic issue, never has been and never will be. Why not try the United Nations?