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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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August 22, 2008 3:56 PM

Still looking for that one, brave soul to make his or her mark

Posted by Ron Judd

In today's newspaper column, I devoted some space to throat-clearing. I wanted to make it clear that, in spite of all the monumental hours, pages and pixels we've devoted to covering the Olympics for the past two weeks, we do know that larger issues -- the Chinese government's behavior in the world and, more important, inside its own borders -- are out there, and worthy of discussion.

The conclusion in my column -- that the Games we're all watching are so squeaky-clean and athletically supercharged that the world is overlooking the larger story -- isn't unique. Over lunch today, I picked up the latest Sports Illustrated -- the one with Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals on the front -- and was interested to note that the issue's opening essay, written by Selena Roberts, who is in Beijing, sounded the same note.

She writes:

China's Olympic organizers -- enabled by the IOC's docile lords and protected by NBC's friendly lens -- have used varying forms of camouflage to produce a Truman Show: a perfect Olympic site, unencumbered by reality. You have witnessed the pure glory of the Beijing Games, with Michael Phelps as Aqua Man, with Usain Bolt as the Fastest Man, with Dara Torres as the Everywoman, but you have also been the victim of misdirection.

That was one of my greatest fears about these Games. Some months ago, I made a decision not to go, based on personal scheduling. It wasn't easy. I haven't missed an Olympics in the past decade; it's such a rich reporting environment that it honestly has been one of the reasons I've continued to work as a journalist. But part of me was relieved, simply because, deep down, I was freed of the nagging guilt I knew would come with taking part in a grand dog-and-pony show.

You could argue the same thing occurs every two years; that every Games is many more parts hype than heart. And you might be partially correct. But this one made me feel extra queasy. Knowing how easy it is as a journalist to get sucked into the maw of Olympic competition and the accompanying deadlines, I could just picture being spat out at the tail end and thinking, "What have we really just done here?"

Now, watching from afar, I think that trepidation was well-founded. That's no knock on any of my colleagues working their butts off in Beijing. With very few exceptions, they are there to cover the Olympics, to bring home what is put before them. Some publications -- and I am proud to count this one among them -- have gone farther, handing one of their hard-won credentials to a newsside reporter charged with bringing more of the real China home than readers would otherwise see. That was a wise decision, and has paid dividends, as you can see by looking through Kristi Heim's excellent work from Beijing.

But it is more the exception than the rule. And it's tough to pry loose the blinders when all of Olympic officialdom keeps pushing them back over your face.

Watching reporters make futile attemps to get IOC officials to take up issues of human rights with their Chinese Olympic hosts, I keep harkening back to a day at the NBA Finals in 1996. At an off-day practice session one day, a bunch of us were crowded around His Airness, Michael Jordan, seeking pearls of wisdom for his thoughts about the ongoing series against the Seattle Sonics. At some point, when the basketball questions seemed to be petering out, one of us in the back of the scrum -- OK, maybe it was me -- shouted out a question about reports of underaged children working in factories that produced Nike shoes bearing Jordan's name.

I'll never forget the glowering, how-dare-you-look as Jordan clenched his teeth briefly, then shot back: "We gonna talk about basketball?"

Apparently we were.

Such is the wall journalists must face every day in Beijing.

We gonna talk about the modern pentathlon?

And besides, let's remember, there's only so much the world's assembled non-TV press can accomplish in this regard. The average world citizen's most iindelible images of the Beijing Games will be transmitted by TV. And in America, at least, NBC has made it clear that it is first and foremost in the business of profiting from, not looking beneath, the Beijing Games.

Which is why it's even more distressing that someone, somewhere, at some time during these Games hasn't put the issue of the Chinese government's repressive tactics front and center, where not even Bob Costas or Jacques Rogge and the other limp-wristed aristocrats sitting in the Olympic Family seats could deny it.

Going into the Games, I would have bet my life that some athlete, some coach, some official, someone somehow connected to the Olympics would find a way to signal to the world that, yes, we know things aren't all as shiny happy here as they appear.

I'm not talking about a grand gesture, ala black gloves on the medal stand. But surely someone would find a way, however discreet, to make a political statement, even if it proved to violate the hallowed IOC rule against political protest, which, recall, was much bantied about, very publicly, by the IOC in the runup to these Games.

Like a Joey Cheek Team Darfur bracelet worn to accept a medal, perhaps. A t-shirt with a strong human rights theme worn into Tiananmen Square. Something.

So far ... Nothing. Silence. Smiles. Acceptance.

Swimmer Amanda Beard, bless her heart, takes the time to get to a public place and display a nude picture of herself -- a poster in which she is standing up for the rights of animals. But no athlete apparently can be troubled to make a similar stand for the rights of human beings.

I don't know what I expect them to do. And you honestly can't ask or expect any of them to take the risk. They've put four years into this one athletic moment. Is it worth throwing that all away to scratch a brief itching of the conscience?

But I do know that it's terribly sad to realize that today, approaching the 40th anniversary of John Carlos and Tommie Smith's black-gloved "Power to the People" salute at the 1968 Mexico Games, none of the vaunted "youth of the world" so often invoked by the IOC possesses the stones to even wag a black-thumbed pinky finger at the IOC, let alone the repressive Chinese government.

Then again, consider the consequences. Carlos and Smith were thrown out of the Olympics by IOC President Avery Brundage, and shunned by most of the American public. They've paid for it ever since. And the latest group of People in Charge at the USOC has made it clear for months that no such dissent would be tolerated in Beijing.

Just look what happened to the four poor cyclists who committed the cardinal sin of showing up in Beijing wearing breathing masks, to the possible "embarrassment" of the Chinese hosts. They were dragged into USOC offices and forced to sign a confession of sins and a feigned apology, with the threat of expulsion from the Games hanging over their heads. As I said earlier: waterboarding may not have been employed. But it was always there as a backup strategy.

That action sent a loud message. It's one that's been adhered to by athletes and officails not only from the United States, but all around the world:

Keep in line, people. Eyes on the prize. No noses will be thumbed at China on our watch. Let's do this and go home. Stay straight.

You shall march the same way, at the same time, in the same rhythm, with everyone else.

If that winds up looking like a goose step, well, at least you're all in it together.

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. 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 U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. 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.