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Vienna | 9.8.2008 | 13:31 
Letters from a shrinking globe: around the day in 80 worlds

Zita, Rotifer, Steve

Forgotten Guilt, Beautiful Innocence
  Human rights have been high on the agendas of world leaders this week. China, the Olympic host, is one of the international bogeymen for abuse of human dignity, and ahead of the Games, under pressure from their domestic voters, Western leaders have been loudly pointing this out.

Yet it must have been a bit of a verbal-tight rope for George W. Bush of the USA when he obliged the will of the Americans and marked his arrival in Beijing by berating China for its dismal human rights record.

Bush, the first sitting president to attend an Olympic opening ceremony outside America, managed to cut a figure of moral indignation without specifically mentioning the death penalty issue, or the practice of holding of prisoners without trial, while Chinese observers mumbled darkly about glass-houses and the throwing of stones.
(c) Antony Maltsev/EPA
A moral tight-rope walk
  Press pictures showed Bush chatting amiably with Chinese President Hu Jintao at an opulent state lunch. You wonder if they were discussing whether waterboarding counted as torture. Bush is convinced its a perfectly legitimate form of gleaning information from terrified prisoners. I think his moral authority can be judged on that muddle-headed confusion about the meaning of human rights alone.

You just hope that all Western leaders pack in their home-bound suitcases some of the impressive concern that they have shown for mankind's dignity in China when they board their planes home to make decisions in their own countries.

And, oh my, oh my, I wish the Austrian media and public had shown as much fervour in slamming human rights abuses when a Gambian man Bakaray J was beaten by police right on our doorstep!
(c) Diego Azubel /EPA
Team Darfur
  Hold your postings, please! I'm not comparing the human rights situation in China with that of the West. Austria has one of the better human rights records in global comparison, we should be reservedly thankful.

And in Beijing Bush emphasised the importance of "the free expression of ideas" - a concept which is apparently written into the constitution of China but which country's leaders seemingly haven't read. The USA, where Michael Moore got an Oscar rather than a jail sentence for an anti-government polemic, still has moral stature in the world on this issue, and has every right to take advantage of that.

As the home of groups like Human Right's Watch, the US also has a lot of committed campaigners for a better, kinder world.

As Bush urged the Communist Party to treat its own citizens in a more enlightened way, a group called Team Darfur, a collection of ex-Olympic athletes, have trying to persuade China to take human rights seriously in their foreign policy.
(c) Kay Nietfeld/EPA
China's International Human Rights Role
  Chinese weapons and economic support for the government of President Omar al-Bashir is helping make life even more miserable for the displaced thousands in Darfur. China has blocked any attempts on the UN Security Council to do anything meaningful to resolve this appalling crisis.

Al-Bashir has just been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, but for China he remains a good customer whose interests must be protected.

Regional experts have told me time and time again that until China puts pressure on Sudan things can only get worse for the Darfur refugees, who are raped and killed and half-starved with impunity by forces al-Bashir could reign in.
(c) John Mabaglo/EPA
  Team Darfur's co-founder, the former gold medal winning speed-skater Joey Cheek, who donated all his Turin games medal bonuses to charity, had planned to travel to Beijing to bring attention to this vital issue.

But Cheek's visa was revoked at the last minute. The International Olympic Committee showed the back-bone of a jelly fish in standing up for a man who has represented so much of what the IOC likes to think it stands for: "Non-accredited persons do not fall within the IOC's remit", was the official response.

Marina Hyde of the Guardian found an admirably apt analogy for the meek reaction of the supposed purveyors of peace through sport.

"It's like demanding an end to poverty", she wrote "then refusing to give tuppence to a beggar on the basis that he isn't wearing a club tie."

As a body the IOC has come a long way since it let Hitler turn the Olympic movement into a propaganda host the 1936 Games - but it has a long road still to travel in terms of living up to its own ideals of peace and tolerance.
(c) Oliver Weiken/EPA
  Still, even if China hasn't made anything like the progress on human right's the International Olympic Committee predicted when awarding the games, the Olympic officials are still at least saying the right things.

At 8.08pm Beijing time on the 8th day of the 8th month (it's got somthing to do with feng shui), the lavish Opening Ceremony began in the wonderful Bird's Nest stadium and the IOC President Jacques Rogge has made his traditional plea for a worldwide military truce for the duration of the games.

Sadly even as he was speaking the hot-headed politicians of Georgia and the hot-headed military leaders of Russia appeared conspiring to kill as many civilians in South Ossetia as possible. Watching on TV I switched between pictures of shining, happy people laughing and Russian tanks in the Caucasus.

The organisors couldn't have known, of course, but the 35,000 fireworks that illuminated Beijing's sky suddenly seemed in terribly bad taste.
(c) Kay Nietfeld/EPA
  Gosh, it is easy to become a cynic! But then I switched over to the Opening Ceremony full time and my cynicism vanished.

I've been absolutely enchanted by the Olympics since I was 9 years old and I was transfixed by the faces of Chinese kids in the stadium.

These Games mean a lot to the ordinary Chinese, and school kids in Beijing have been given one "Olympic Day" out of class each, so they can taste a bit of the action.

It was easy to put the unanswered political questions to the back of your mind when the cameras panned to their awed faces as the watched giant, illuminated Olympic rings and enormous pillars rise up from the floor of the stadium and trapeze artists and acrobats springing around the central field.

Or when you saw the joyous faces on the athletes who have sweated for months of unbelievable dedication in under-funded under-publicised sports for these few days. They bounced into the stadium like the electrified children who have been given cola for the first time and just can't stand still. A Senegalese athlete was waving a banner reading "Amitié d'abord, compétition ensuite," or "friendship comes before competition". You can't tell those sportsmen and women that these Games are about politics.
(c) Gero Breloer/EPA
  So let's give these games - and particularly the athletes whose dreams are currently being realised - a chance.

I thought it was a bit of a snotty statement when some American cyclists turned up at the air-conditioned airport wearing breathing masks - it reeked a bit of the aristocrats who used to wear gloves when meeting the 'poor people'.

And whatever you think of China's internal or external politics, whatever you think of their environmental policies (and it was interesting to read this week that that China has become the World's second biggest investor in clean energy after German) for the sake of those athletes, for the sake of the ordinary Chinese population and for the sake of China's future self-perception as a co-operative part of the international community - we should all hope that these Games are a massive success.
Let the Games begin!
  Now, after all that waiting, the sport is finally underway. Katerina Emmons of the Czech Republic has won the first gold medal of the Games in the women's 10m air rifle event, 26 year old Ludwig Paischer has won a silver medal for Austria (giving this country an impressive 6th place on the early medal table!) and Greece 200m sprinter Anastasios Gousis has made the first headlines for a positive drugs test.

So here we go again. And in spite of, or perhaps because of everything, I just wish I was there!
fm4 links
  Chris Cummins on Beijing 2008:

Forgotten Guilt, Beautiful Innocence
[Aug. 8] The most politicised Games in recent history are underway

Violence and Reconciliation
[Aug. 10] A vicious murder and a gesture of peace

Wind, Jodhpurs and the Laws of Physics
[Aug. 11] A television festival for insomniacs

Dancing Bee-keepers and Tugged Speedos
[Aug. 12] What's the best event to watch on the goggle-box?

An Ode to Crooked Teeth
[Aug. 13] And a war of words on the beach.

"Just Don't Be Journalists!"
[Aug. 14] A very bizarre press conference in Beijing.

Are Medal Tables Rubbish?
[Aug. 18] Journalists and politicians slaver of them, but the Olympic charter says they don't matter. Do they?
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