I'm on my way to Chicago this morning for the Olympic Media Summit, which consists of three days of round tables with various U.S. athletes, including swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Hoff, who are looking more and more like they may be the two biggest stories of the Beijing Olympics.
Aside from the politics of course.
We're about four months away from the opening ceremonies in August, and with each passing week, the Games look more and more like a pot of boiling water that might just boil over at some point. Pollution is going to be awful (Rick Maese and I have pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we'll be hacking up black tar at night), the Olympic torch was met with protests in London, Paris and San Francisco amid China's recent crackdown in Tibet, and various world leaders have begun to throw out the word "boycott," even if, for now, they're only talking about a symbolic boycott of the opening ceremonies. A friend of mind even asked me recently if I was looking forward to attending the "Genocide Games."
One of my favorite authors, Buzz Bissinger, who wrote the book Friday Night Lights, argued yesterday in the New York Times that it's time to end the Olympics, and urges the United States to take the lead by withdrawing permanently. Though Bissinger admits that it's unlikely to happen, he says that the only way to save the Olympics is to destroy them, chocking off the corruption, drug abuse, and political scandals that always seems to accompany the Games every four years.
I don't think it's as black and white, or as simple, as Bissinger makes it seem. I'm not sure how you tell someone like Phelps or Hoff, who have worked their whole lives with this moment in mind, that the United States is going to pull out of the Olympics, but continue to serve as China's biggest trade partner. It would be kind of hypocritical to say that we won't allow our athletes to compete in China because morally we object to its human rights practices, but we'd be thrilled if the Chinese would continue to buy sneakers and Coke while selling us their own cheaply made goods.
If you do nothing else today, read this incredible piece that ran last week in the Washington Post by Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist. I can write whatever I want on this blog and not have to worry that my government will kick in my door in the middle of the night and drag me away to prison. It's one of the most, if not the most, important rights I have as an American. Hu had no such freedoms. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in jail just for writing that piece, which points out some of the cruel and despicable things the Chinese government did in preparation for the Olympic Games, including displacing 1.25 million from their homes and imprisoning or killing journalists, writers, artists who dared speak up against some of the acts.
Gary Hall Jr., a swimmer and two-time Olympic gold medal winner, told the media last week in Ohio that the Olympics shouldn't be a platform for anyone's political views. That it should be about the spirit of competition, friendship, and nothing else. Phelps said it's not something he follows or feels comfortable commenting on. But at the same time, he told me that one of his greatest thrills was meeting boxer Muhammad Ali, an athlete who never shied away from bold political statements.
I'm not a big fan of people who want to use athletes to advance their own political views. A boycott seems extremely unlikely, considering the billions of dollars American sponsors have invested. But at the same time, it's going to be difficult to ignore the politics in China. What will happen if some athlete whips out a Tibetan flag on the medal stand?