What a terrible week for the International Olympic Committee and the host nation, China.
The on-going protests (sometimes very disruptive) as the Olympic Torch relay continues have cast the Olympics in a light not seen since the mid-1980s, when the Games were sabotaged by back-to-back boycotts led by the United States in 1980 and the Soviet Union in 1984. Then the issues were East-West in nature, as the U.S. stood on the sidelines as a protest of the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan. Almost 60 nations followed the Americans' lead. Four years later, the Soviets, citing concerns for the safety of their athletes, skipped the Los Angeles Games. About a dozen of its allies did the same.
Now, the angst within the Olympic Movement is more domestic in nature. The Chinese have received chronic negative coverage in the West for its response to the unrest in Tibet, even though there remains general consensus that the protests were staged by Tibetans. The Chinese media have sounded the alarm that the groups behind the protests were determined to sew unrest within Tibet and disrupt the Olympics. No one in the West seems prepared to accept that notion.
The lingering Torch relay protests gained momentum because of what happened in Tibet, which (re-)confirmed in the minds of many that the Chinese will do whatever it takes to maintain order. Would there have been protests if the Tibet crisis had not happened? I doubt it. And even if they had, the media coverage of them would have been significantly reduced. However, once Tibet combined with images of protesters being manhandled or unfairly intruding upon the Olympics, depending upon one's opinion, the media fervor was on. It will not let up.
There also are conflicting media reports emanating from China and within Western media organizations. The Chinese are quick to point out comments made by IOC leaders or others that indicate support for China as it moves closer to hosting the Olympics. But nothing is reported within that media relating to IOC calls for freedoms of various kinds. On the other hand, the West seems determined to spotlight the calls for freedom while ignoring the statements endorsing Olympic values.
In short, this is an unsettled period for the Olympic Movement. I maintain, as I have in many places, that the IOC cannot hold onto antiquated notions of politics and sports not mixing. Let's face it, the IOC is, by itself, a political organization, and it has used the Games to advance its agenda for openness and bringing together the world. But more germane to what is happening now, the IOC has few options available to it, and that reality demonstrates its weakness as a political body. It can (and should) insist that the freedoms it holds important are on display this summer in Beijing and throughout China. However, it lacks a sanctioning mechanism that can assist it in enforcing what it wants.
The Chinese, on the other hand, have the power to enforce what they want -- order. But they also have to be cognizant of supporting the IOC values it promised to uphold when it was named the Games' host in 2001.
Tension indeed. It's increasing. And there appears to be no place to vent it, at least for now.