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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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April 27, 2008 11:30 AM

Olympic athletes: Political opinions welcome -- sort of

Posted by Ron Judd

The International Olympic Committee's Athlete's Commission met in Switzerland recently to ponder what to do about growing unrest -- some of it in the athlete's own ranks -- about the choice of China as an Olympics host. Read their conclusions here.

It's a thorny issue, and the athletes reaffirmed their colleagues rights to express opinions. But they also subtly reminded them that they have every right to remain silent. And they dropped in their own reference, just in case anyone forgot, to the IOC's "Rule 51," which says "propaganda or demonstrations" on political issues should be stifled during the Games, or at any official Olympic competition or function. (IOC President Jacques Rogge's recent interpretation of that rule with regard to Beijing can be found here.)

You can argue this issue either way. But we expect -- and frankly sort of hope -- that not every athlete will feel squashed by Rule 51's constraints. In the rule's 50-year history, it has often been ignored. Political expressions have been made on Olympic soil as sacred as the medal stand -- see Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Mexico City, 1968, for just one example -- and the Games have managed to keep from collapsing on themselves. The IOC should be wary about waving the rule around any more than it already has.

In fact, those who argue that Olympism should maintain a wall between competition and politics are ignoring the role of politics in the Games through history. Just one example: At the 1948 St. Moritz Winter Games -- the first to take place after World War II canceled the 1940 Olympics that were to be held in, of all places, Sapporo, Japan -- athletes from Japan and Germany were flat-out barred from competition. How's that for a separation of politics and sport? We could go on, but plenty of other examples of nation state activity and Olympic repercussions can be found through a cursory scan of the history books.

Perhaps IOC execs in Lausanne bemoaning the mixing of Olympic medals and international malaise need to sit for a spell and consider their own part in this drama: They can't cower forever behind the shroud of assertions that "Beijing submitted the best bid!" Because everyone knows the awarding of the Games to China in 2001 was, ipso facto, a political statement by the Olympic movement. Squinting through the resulting blowback and expecting athletes to honor that choice, and refrain from responding to it, is both naive and hypocritical.

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Blogroll and links

www.olympic.org: The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information.
www.nbcolympics.com: Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog
www.usolympicteam.com: U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site.
www.aroundtherings.com: Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription).
www.wcsn.com: News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions.
www.beijing2008.com: Beijing Organizing Committee Web site.
www.vancouver2010.com: Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site.
www.london2012.com: London 2012 Summer Games site.
www.sochi2014.com: Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site.
www.chicago2016.org: Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.