With less than a week to go before the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Beijing, Mia Farrow is on her way to a refugee camp in Darfur to host The Darfur Olympics, a week-long web broadcast that will be timed to coincide with the first week of the Olympic Games. Although the majority of Farrow's Olympics-related activism, such as her now almost completely moribund calls for major world leaders to boycott the Beijing Games, have been misguided and would have likely hurt her cause had they been taken more seriously, it is important to recognize just how cannily she was able to use the Beijing Olympic Spotlight to promote her agenda. While many might welcome the Olympic Spotlight as a powerful tool for activists, this tool ought to be seen as a source of great shame for us all. This is because the Olympic Spotlight plays a dual role. It both focuses Western attention on neglected causes as well as demonstrating how fickle and disengaged this same audience is with global issues in the absence of major media events like the Olympics.
Appeals to some form of global morality are central in the majority of the Olympic-related anti-China/pro-human rights rhetoric (it continues to be increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two). It is claimed that the abuse of human rights by the Chinese government at home and their abuse of human rights by proxy in Darfur are clear violations of a universal moral code. Western activists use of the Olympic Spotlight has attempted to highlight China's amorality. If China is to 'graduate' into world power status, the argument goes, then the Chinese government must develop a moral code and that code must be in line with the one we profess to have in the West. Quite frankly, if China were to adopt a new moral code (they may be immoral by some standards, but the country certainly isn't without a moral code), they could find a much better model than ours.
In highlighting the West's capricious appetite for stories of genocide in Africa and political and religious intolerance and killings in Asia, the Olympic spotlight has, in fact, inadvertently revealed our own moral bankruptcy. It is reprehensible that activists such as Farrow must patiently wait for global media events to coincide with their causes in order to have an audience. We shouldn't need two weeks of sports and ceremony to learn that something terribly evil is happening in Africa or to realize that we should be fighting to stop it. The fact that we do indicates that our own morals are as transient, trend-oriented and, I fear, temporary as fashion. Summer 2008's style is Darfur. What's the style going to be next season?
While it could certainly be argued that the temporary interest generated by the Olympic Spotlight is better than the complete absence of interest that a Games-free summer may have generated, we have to ask ourselves whether reliance on the Olympics as a tool for generating debate about human rights is ultimately a form of our own moral acquiescence. During the Olympic Torch Relay protests this spring, The Globe and Mail reported that Phil Fontaine, the head of the Assembly of First Nations, an organization representing Aboriginal Canadians, suggested that "the Vancouver [2010 Winter] Olympics are a potential target for First Nations protest much like Beijing has been a flash point for Tibet supporters" and that Canadians ought to be "'outraged' by abysmal native conditions in their own country". Why wait until 2010? Are we to wait until the London 2012 Olympics to address growing Islamophobia in Britain and Europe? Must we wait until the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games to examine corruption and human rights abuse allegations in Russia? Should we wait until next year, when the host of the 2016 Olympics is announced, for the IOC to inadvertently direct the eyes of Western activists to where and what the future fashionable causes will be?
Today, the Olympic Spotlight is so powerful precisely because it connects a mainstream event to subjects and places that are typically absent in Western media and political debate. Surely, we can do better than this. If the West were to have the moral rectitude and the global purview that Farrow and friends are demanding that China acquire, the Olympic spotlight would not be such a powerful tool for activists. We wouldn't need a spectacular global media event to tell us where global crises are occurring and whether or not to care. So, if record audiences tune into Farrow's web broadcasts from refugee camps next week, the power of the Olympic spotlight will once again be demonstrated. Even if these web broadcasts do some good and even if they manage to thoughtfully engage with the diplomatic complexities of the Beijing Games, they will also operate as a shameful reflection of our own highly-touted but ultimately bankrupt and event-oriented morality.