Separate politics from the Olympics? Impossible.

The report:

In his commentary, “Keep politics out of the Olympics, which was published in mypaper yesterday (5 August 2008), Sports Editor Chia Han Keong made a plea that we be not distracted by politics and human rights issues when the Beijing Olympics begins this week.

Chia Han Keong's comment in mypaper

Chia Han Keong's comment in mypaper

“Have you forgotten that the Beijing Olympics is actually about sporting excellence?” he wrote.

“Meanwhile, the elite Olympic athletes train quietly, devoid of distractions, completely focused on golden aspirations.

“Just like them, let’s not be distracted by politics and human rights issues, It is absolutely not the right time to do so.”

Instead, said Chia, let us focus solely on all the sporting drama that will unfold over the next few weeks. 

“So many (sporting) questions to be answered. Why bother about politics?”

You can read Chia’s piece by clicking on the image on the right. It will lead you to the article on


My thoughts:

To be honest, I felt Chia’s comment piece was a tad too idealistic.

Let’s face it: can we really exclude politics from sports when politics permeates every single facet of our everyday lives?

And so it begs the question: what is politics? Well, a check with the dictionaries threw up the following definitions.

i. Politics is political affairs, especially the work of governing a country;

ii. Politics is the science or study of the ways in which a country is governed;

iii. Your politics are your political views or beliefs;

iv. Politics is also any activity or manoeuvre aimed at achieving power or advantage over  others within  a particular group or organisation

As you can see, politics is very much a part of our lives and our identities.

How we think, how we view things, how we live our lives, how we think things should be done, all these are influenced by our own personal – and hence, political – beliefs.

To insist then that the Olympics, or sports in general, be separate from politics is to say that sports operates in a vacuum, in a separate world from the rest of day-to-day life. Which doesn’t make sense.

If sports is to be kept separate from politics, then why are Olympic athletes identified by the countries that they represent? Why then is there a need for athletes to march in contingents and to be flag bearers at opening ceremonies?

Why then do we talk of athletes bringing honour and glory to their countries at the Olympics? Likewise, why then does it follow that any athlete who wins an Olympic medal is usually declared a national hero by his or her country?

Continuing the argument, if politics is to be kept separate from sports, then why do we need Sports Ministers?

Similarly, one then also cannot entertain the idea of a government providing any form of national funding for the various sporting bodies in a country. The provision of funds is, by nature a political act. So too the acceptance of the funds by these sporting bodies.

I felt International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge was being hypocritical when he said  that if political propaganda is allowed in the Olympics, “it’s the end of the harmony of the Olympic village, and the end of the harmony of the Games.” (as quoted by Chia in his comment).

Please, let’s not bluff ourselves: politics and human right issues have been part and parcel of the Olympics since time immemorial.

Wasn’t the 1936 Berlin Games used by Adolph Hitler as a platform to show off a resurgent Nazi Germany to the rest of the world and to propagate his concepts of Aryan superiorty? Don’t you think that Jesse Owens was similarly inspired by the opportunity to prove Hitler’s racist view of the inferiority of the African man wrong?

LIkewise, why was distance runner Zola Budd booed by even her countrymen when she turned out in British colours at the 1984 Olympics? Because she was actually a South African who was given British citizenship at the last minute so that she could represent the UK at the Olympics. South Africa then was ostracised by the rest of the world because it actively practised apartheid, and i many ways, people saw in Budd an instance of the British authorities sacrificing moral principles in the pursuit of sporting glory.

Similarly, Australian 200m and 400m runner Cathy Freeman was much beloved by her countrymen because she was not only Australian but also an Aborigine. And when she won the 400m gold at the Syndey Olympics, she not only became the first Aboriginal Olympic champion but also chose to emphaticially state her dual identities on the occasion by doing a victory lap with both the Asutralian and the Aboriginal flags draped over her shoulders.   

Fast forward to this present day and it’s easy to see how the Beijing Olympics has been all about politics in every single way, from the time China first tabled its bid to host the 2000 Olympics, to the awarding of the 2008 Games to Beijing to now.

Firstly, wasn’t the IOC decision not to award the 2000 Olympics to China due largely to the memory of the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on student protesters in Tiannamen Square in 1989?

And why was the IOC swayed by China’s subsequent bid for the 2008 Games? Could it not have been influenced by the argument by Beijing Olympic Bid Committee vice-president Liu Jingmin that by letting Beijing host the Olympics, the IOC will be helping the development of human rights in China?

(Note: For more, do check out this article by Elizabeth C. Economy and Adam Segal in the July/August 2008 issue of respected journal “Foreign Affairs” entitled “China’s Olympics Nightmare“)

And finally, hasn’t the Beijing Olympics been constantly described as China’s opportunity to show to the rest of the world that it has arrived politically, economincally and as a sporting powerhouse on the international stage?

Finally, let’s just look at the Singapore contingent to the Olympic Games to see how one cannot separate politics from sport.

If you go by the fourth definition of politics as listed above (“Politics is also any activity or manoeuvre aimed at achieving power or advantage over others within  a particular group or organisation”), then it is clear to see that Singapore’s bid to win its first Olympic medal since 1960 is also a political battle for supremacy between the pro-foreign talent and pro-local talent camps of Singapore sport.

If our national women’s table tennis team wins a medal, you can be sure that Singapore Table Tennis Association officials will be using that achievement to show that the Foreign Talent Scheme is a must-have component in Singapore’s quest for sporting excellence.

Likewise, if our sailors (all locals), manage to pull off a stunner and come back with a medal from Qingdao, don’t you think that triumph would be the best statement of the ability of local talent to compete with the best in the world?

(I know which camp I will be rooting for but that is another story altogether).

Bottom line: you can’t separate politics from sports. It’s impossible to think that sports can actually exist in  a vacuum, devoid of any political meaning.

Sure, we can all appreciate and marvel at the exquisiteness and perfection of the sporting act itself.

But at the end of the day, we cannot run away from the fact that people will always pack sporting achievements with all sorts of political meanings and significances. We can’t help it. Politics define who we are and this wil always spill over into th way we see sports, which is but one of the many identity-builders in our lives.

(You may want to check out this article “The Road from Rome” by David Maraniss which appeared recently in Newsweek which talks about how the notion of the Olmypics can neer be sepaated from professionalism, commercialism and politics. )  

Yours in sport

Singapore Sports Fan

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