Today the 2008 Summer Olympics start in Beijing. The debate in the lead up to the Games has focused on whether or not this sporting event, representing the pinnacle of thousands of athletes' careers, is also a time to discuss politics. The host nation of China has the ignominious distinction of possessing one of the world's worst human rights records. From an illegal military occupation of Tibet, to repressive policies in Muslim East Turkestan, to stringent family planning that has included forced abortions, and the jailing of democracy and free speech activists, there is little to say positively about how China treats those who live inside their borders. Taking a look from Beijing towards the African continent and we see China's endless thirst for fossil fuels manifesting itself by propping up the Sudanese government and providing Khartoum with the money they need to perpetrate genocide in Darfur. These are not issues that the global community has taken lightly and it is because of their gravity that the political side of the 2008 Games will be a focal point over the next few weeks.
No one has ever cast doubt on the Chinese government's ability to put on a stunning show during the Olympics. Over $40 billion has been spent to make the Games more glamorous and high tech than ever before. Some of the architecture associated with the Games -- the brand new airport, the Water Cube that hosts swimming events, and the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium -- is on par with the most beautiful and interesting designs in the world. And when they can be seen amid Beijing's quantifiably unhealthy smog and haze, I am sure audiences worldwide will marvel at their grandeur.
I am a huge fan of the Olympic Games. I love the sport, learning about the life time of hard work athletes put into making themselves not just remarkable, but Olympian. I enjoy a bit of healthy nationalism, knowing that rooting for my American countrymen and women to defeat all others comes without a hint of worry that whatever patriotic country western songs (or pop anthems if you're in the UK) will be used to, say, build public sentiment to start a war of aggression. I even love watching analysts and pundits break down the details of a sport they probably haven't watched or commented on since the last Olympics four years prior.
But the enjoyment of sport is not diminished by the recognition that there are serious problems in China that demand global attention. China has invited the world in and we are coming, but let's not pretend we are making a compact when we turn on NBC or ESPN to not let our beliefs about human rights and freedom enter our mind.
I've been involved with efforts by Students for a Free Tibet related to the Olympics for over eight years. When focus shifted to the 2008 bid, we were there. And once the International Olympic Committee awarded China these Olympics, we shifted our efforts in recognition of the opportunity that would be afforded to Tibetans while the whole world was watching the Games.
You see, no occupied people have ever had their occupier given such a prime stage for global attention in modern history. While the Chinese government will seek to focus the world's attention on the bright lights, new stadiums, and rising Chinese medal count in Beijing, Tibetans and their supporters are working to shift that spotlight onto China's brutal occupation of Tibet.
Already this week activists from Students for a Free Tibet have taken a daring action that focused attention on Tibet. On Wednesday two Americans and two Britons unfurled giant banners from 120 foot high light poles outside of the Bird's Nest stadium, calling for Tibetan independence. Massive protests by Tibetans and their supporters in London, Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and Kathmandu (among many others) have garnered significant attention as well.
I don't know how coverage and global perceptions of these Olympics will change once the athletics start, but for now I believe the world has come to the conclusion that Tibet is an issue that must be at the forefront during the Games. Will further protests have an impact? With hundreds of millions of people watching the Games, I have no doubt that the continued public discussion about China's ongoing military occupation of Tibet can net results that help Tibetans move closer to independence.
As you watch the Olympics over the next few weeks, remember that the events on TV are not happening in a vacuum. And when images of protest and calls for Tibetan independence or religious freedom break into coverage of gymnastics or water polo, recognize that they are taking place because the world is just not ready to abandon morality and human dignity because there are Games on.
Matt Browner-Hamlin is a Democratic internet strategist, writer, and consultant. He has worked with Students for a Free Tibet for over eight years, including two years as a full-time staff member. The views expressed are his alone and not the views of any of his clients.