April 8, 2008

W.W.J.B. (What Would Jesus Boycott?)

It's very hard to separate business from politics. How many of the current political hot topics are economic in nature? Soaring oil prices, America's national debt, the falling U.S. dollar, the economic recession, the costly war in Iraq, tax cuts, free trade agreements, cheap foreign labor, rising unemployment rates, CEO's with 'golden parachutes', Third-World debt and the success of war-profiteering corporations like Lockheed Martin and Halliburton are just a few of today's issues that have both economic and political significance. I would take it a step further to contend that these are also issues of moral and spiritual significance. As Jim Wallis of Sojourners likes to say, "Budgets are moral documents." Whether it's the federal budget, our church budget or the family budget, we declare our priorities and values by what we spend money on and who that money goes to.

The business of sports is like any other business. There are products to be sold, logos to be mass-produced, slogans to be repeated, earnings to report and market shares to be fought over. Coke doesn't want you drink Pepsi any more than Rupert Murdoch wants you to watch NBC's Summer Olympic coverage instead of baseball on his network, FOX Sports. Corporations can own media outlets, stadiums, teams and even individual players if the price is right. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Serena Williams have made far more from Nike (a brand that all 4 stars currently endorse), Gatorade, Sprite, HP and other corporate endorsements than from their actual on-the-court earnings. Those corporations in turn, have made gigantic profits relative to the pithy millions given to those athletes for their smile.

So what is the responsibility of sports fans like myself? To consume of course! Which teams do I follow? Which games and events will I watch? Which sportswriters and commentators do I like? Which website will I access to read recaps, watch highlights, view box scores (the sports equivalent of the business section's finely-printed stock prices) and maybe even buy a key chain or t-shirt displaying my favorite team's logo? At this very moment, there are well-paid market research firms and analysts being deployed with the sole purpose of discovering my patterns of consumption. It's very flattering until you realize what they're really after. Even though I didn't pay a dime to start this blog, I'm sure Google is making money off me somehow.

And that brings us to the flurry of commotion surrounding the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Today's torch relay in San Francisco, the only U.S. city on the tour, ended up being re-routed amid fears of the large and rowdy masses. This whole scenario was an activist's dream but a nightmare for the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Seriously, of all the American cities for the torch to pass through, this was the choice? In my mind, San Francisco is clearly one of America's great cities when it comes to diversity, the arts, culture, and intellect, but if it were my job to decide on a route for the torch where it would be cheered instead of jeered, the city by the Bay would be the last place I'd pick. While they're at it, maybe the IOC could have also invited a hunting-gear-clad Dick Cheney to sit on the top of a float, rifle-in-hand, as part of the parade!

In a stinging critique of the IOC, Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports observed earlier this week that the choice of China as a host nation was made for economic reasons more than anything else. Essentially, the IOC was gambling that this move would help China to 'clean up its act' on issues of democracy and human rights (more specifically, freedom of the press and the treatment of Tibetan dissenters). Although it's difficult to obtain accurate information about conditions in China, the general consensus is that the air and water pollution are terrible, the food is unsafe and journalists can be expected to be spied on and searched without notice. There has also been widespread violence in Tibet in an attempt to squelch the protests. Wetzel writes, “The IOC willingly purchased the unholy bill of goods China was peddling so its sponsoring corporations could, in turn, sell stuff to the Chinese people.”

So what do China's policies have to do with the Olympics? Only as much as the business of sports has to do with politics. Which is, I guess, everything. For activists and protesters concerned with stopping the violence in Tibet, the Games provide the backdrop for publicity stunts and demonstrations. Some activists have touted the phrase "Genocide Olympics" in reference to China's strong economic partnership with a Sudanese government that has yet to put a stop to the unspeakable atrocities in its Darfur region. Others have used the Olympics to protest China's support of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Whether you agree with the tactics or not, these protests have helped the general public to begin exploring the whole connection between politics, business and sports.

On Monday, Hillary Clinton urged President Bush to boycott August's opening ceremonies as a way of denouncing China's disregard for human rights. Fellow senators Robert Byrd (D-WV) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) joined her later in signing a formal letter asking Bush not to attend. In a vacuum, this might be a noble act, but it's not like the United States currently has the credibility and moral authority in the global community to put any teeth into such a boycott. Besides, we owe them money. "It's very hard to tell your banker that he's wrong," Barack Obama said today. "And if we are running huge deficits and big national debts and we're borrowing money constantly from China, that gives us less leverage."

Politicians and world leaders are stuck between condemning China's treatment of demonstrators while still applauding the Olympic Games. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have already said they will not be attending the ceremonies. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd (himself a former diplomat to China) have not decided whether to attend the opening ceremonies, although Rudd opposes a complete boycott of the Games. "My view is that boycotts do not work,” he said. “I do not support a boycott. The boycott of Moscow in 1980 had no impact on the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.” Mr. Rudd's attention is currently focused on the torch's route through his capital of Canberra on April 24.

For American politicians like Clinton and Obama, it's too risky to call for a complete U.S. boycott of the Games- at least right now. Not when they are being hosted by such a potent economic power as China. There are too many corporations involved with too much money at stake. You might as well call for a boycott on Arab oil! China and the U.S. rely heavily on each other as economic partners and neither one is in much of a position to point the finger when it comes to ethics and global responsibility.

But controversy is nothing new for the Olympics. Before the 1936 Olympics held in Hitler's Berlin, the IOC expelled American Ernest Lee Jahnke, the son of a German immigrant, for encouraging athletes to boycott the Games. Needless to say, he was replaced by someone with more support for the Games. At the 1972 Games in Munich, members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Eleven of them were murdered. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, 33 African countries boycotted the Games due to reasons related to South Africa's apartheid. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by 60+ countries (led by the U.S., China, Japan, West Germany and Canada) in response to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union returned the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics along with 13 of their allies. Even if the 2008 Olympics proceed without a U.S. boycott of the opening ceremonies, the Games will again be shrouded in controversy. But what is the right thing to do this time around?

For the record, I believe that Tibet should be a free and independent nation. The peaceful monks (and any other dissenters) should be allowed to protest non-violently without the threat of violence or imprisonment. I also believe that China should not be financing Sudan's genocide by purchasing their oil without even an acknowledgement of the atrocities committed. We consumers still have some power to do something about it. Raising awareness through boycotts could be part of the solution.

But as a consumer, I have to admit that the Olympics are still an appealing product to me. I think it's great that the world-class decathletes, backstrokers and gymnasts are given some attention once every four years. I always enjoy watching the opening ceremonies and rooting for the underdog from a small country who can inspire their people with hope amid darkness or draw attention to a forgotten area of the globe. I'm still fascinated, some would say naively, with what the Olympics should be about: the idea of bringing nations together at the common table of athletics in a form of 'soft diplomacy' (whether everyone at that table is actually fed is a another question). It's true that Tibetans would be oppressed and Chinese factories would be coughing out nasty chemicals whether the Olympics were held in China or Switzerland. It's only because of the Olympics that anyone is starting to care. The fact that the Olympics have become tainted (or maybe always have been) should not be a reason to wash my hands of responsibility and turn away. Maybe the Olympics are an endeavor worth redeeming. Maybe they point to something deeper about the brokenness of humanity.

Besides, what would it accomplish if I thumbed my nose at the Olympics only to change the channel (or web browser) and watch another program where those same corporations are selling me other products that perpetuate the cycle of greed and oppression? Is there any way to escape the Matrix? I think this is why some people choose to become monks. Like the Tibetan ones however, they can still find their rights being taken away by unchecked corruption from the halls of power (which also includes those business relationships that help to prop up those in power).

Maybe I'll just use the time that I would be watching the Olympics to catch up on some errands I need to run. I hear that Wal-Mart's got everyday low prices.

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