While preparation for the Olympics continues around the world amid both protest and celebration, I've been thinking more and more about the issue of human rights abuses in China and an appropriate response from the United States. A three-day Olympics media summit began yesterday in Chicago, and I must confess, the responses of our athletes are less than impressive. In fact, I find the attitudes presented there largely disgusting.
(Disclaimer: I have not been able to find any sort of complete transcript of these meetings, so I am aware that the quotes I am reading may not reflect the whole story...)
Not surprisingly, most athletes are shying away from the "political" aspects of the games, doubtlessly referring to protests centering on Tibet and Sudan, in order to focus on the games themselves. I still have read absolutely nothing about actual human rights abuses in China itself (see my earlier post on the subject here). While no one is completely in denial about the very serious host of issues surrounding the Olympics in China, there is continued avoidance of the real problems. In the words of women's soccer Olympian Heather O'Reilly, (quoted here) "Winning the gold medal is where we can speak the loudest, by representing our country in the best way possible." With all due respect, Ms. O'Reilly, I'm not really sure winning gold medals is saying anything truly significant to the rest of the world, is it? Is medal count really going to change the world? No.
Olympic gold medalist Paul Hamm remarked (quoted here), "The Olympics are about bringing people together. It's not about making the Olympics something you can use as a political tool." I can appreciate the sentiment here, in a sense. Let's be honest, Mr. Hamm is not a politician, he's an athlete...but...as an Olympic athlete he is by default an ambassador from our nation to the rest of the world. As such, I would argue that he and other athletes not only are in the position to speak on the world stage but have an obligation to do so. To suggest that the kinds of human rights abuses seen in China and elsewhere are merely political agenda items reserved for "the politicians" is beyond ignorant, it is absurd. Can we not speak out against the denial of fundamental human rights (such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..sound familiar to anyone) unless we are professional politicians? Seems to me a couple of hundred years ago a bunch of guys got together in Philly to do just that.
There are some bright spots of light in the midst of this murky darkness. According to this Free Press article, Jessica Mendoza is an outfielder on the women's softball team who is also an active ambassador for Team Darfur, a group of athletes seeking to raise awareness of the horrendous crisis in Sudan. Again though, sadly, as Americans we are showing our ignorance, which Jessica pointed out. "Some of my teammates have asked me, 'What's happening in Darfur? Is that in Africa?'" The Free Press author of this article wrote these questions off as her teammates' focus on preparing for the games, but I would argue this is yet another sad testimony to both our ignorance and indifference of most things beyond the bounds of our comfortable little worlds. Thanks for actively caring, Ms. Mendoza, keep up the great work! May you continue to be a beacon of light among your teammates and the larger community!
At the end of the day, I have a very hard time agreeing with the attitudes of many of our athletes (and politicians) that the tragedies continually occurring in China (not to mention Tibet and Sudan) are somehow unapproachable and unworthy of comment merely because we may not be vocational politicians. These lines ring totally hollow--as the supposedly sophisticated rhetoric of those who really don't have the compassion or courage to speak up. How can depriving someone of something as fundamental as their very life be relegated to the realm of political speech and not be an area where we all have a moral obligation to speak up? Have these folks thought through how ridiculous they sound?
To our athletes: As international ambassadors from the United States as well as world-class performers who are de facto role models for countless young folks (athletes or not), I would like to ask you, "Why is your silence so deafening?" It's hard enough to find role models worthy of imitation in sports arena today, how could a opportunity in which it is so easy to say and do the right thing go ignored? As a supporter, viewer, and parent desperately searching for role models for my two young children, I am utterly disappointed. Instead of focusing on your medals, re-read your Olympic Creed, which states, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." Perhaps you should focus less on the triumph and more on the struggle...the bigger struggle, beyond the hallowed halls of the arena.
To our politicians: The same question goes to our elected officials on both sides of the aisle and in the White House...why do we hear nothing from you? As a voting and letter-writing constituent who has no vested interest in your continued representation if you cannot handle situations as clear-cut as this, I am disgusted. Instead of worrying about your pet projects and re-election, re-read those so wonderful words from the Declaration of Independence that remind us, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Perhaps you should focus more on working toward the rights of others instead of the pettiness of beltway politics.