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The Games Begin

When the Olympic torch is formally lit August 8 in the Bird’s Nest, China’s odd-looking new Olympic stadium, and the sky above Beijing explodes with what officials promise will be a “spectacular” fireworks display (in the very “birthplace of gunpowder,” as a government press release artlessly points out), a few key figures will be conspicuously absent. Truants will include the presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. They plan to boycott the opening ceremony to protest China’s poor human rights record and its ongoing occupation of Tibet.

At least, they hope their absence will be conspicuous. But with whole brigades of other world leaders planning to attend the ceremony, beginning with George Bush, Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy, protesters are beginning to fret that their protests will fall flat. In Canada, a furious debate is raging over the planned absence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and whether it will even be noticed — that is, assuming he is actually boycotting rather than simply detained by other commitments. His office won’t say one way or the other.

Norway’s King Harald and Queen Sonja will be there, but they won’t be joined by their culture and sport minister, Trond Giske, who strongly favored a boycott. Instead he’ll be attending the closing ceremony. That ought to teach them.

Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, had been planning to skip the ceremony, but not because of child labor, Tibet’s agony or China’s appalling role in Darfur. Peres intended to stay home because the accommodations were too far from the stadium and he didn’t want to ride on the Sabbath. Instead, China found him a hotel on stadium grounds in the Olympic village, allowing Peres to uphold the Israeli political tradition of pretending to be Sabbath-observant when traveling abroad. Now he’s good to go.

If all this sounds silly, that’s because it is. The political gamesmanship surrounding the games this year is making fools of just about everyone involved. It’s not that the event has become politicized, as critics on both sides argue, but rather that this year’s politicization has been executed so clumsily. China, by turning the games into a demonstration of national pride and progress, unintentionally gave its critics an invitation to spotlight its flaws. The protesters, by failing to make good on their threats, merely showcased their impotence. No one came out looking good.

The fact is that injecting politics into the Olympics is nothing new. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how a competitive gathering of 100-plus national delegations, each marching under its national flag, could somehow be devoid of politics. Nor are this year’s Olympics in Beijing the most heavily politicized in the games’ modern history, as most pundits insist. That trophy would have to go either to Berlin 1936, arguably the most naked exercise in propaganda in the past century, or to Moscow 1980, which suffered a real-live boycott when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted nearly 60 nations to stay home entirely, including the United States, Japan, Norway and — ironically — China.

Nearly lost in the uproar is the real point of the Olympics, which is to bring athletes together to compete and put on a good show. However much the Chinese and their detractors try to divert attention away from the games to their game-playing, billions of people will be watching the events over the next few weeks. And they will be watching not for politics or social uplift, but for the thrill and beauty of seeing the best of the best face off. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Looking for opportunities to improve the lot of the world’s downtrodden is a very, very important pursuit. This newspaper takes a back seat to no one on that score. But you won’t win the sympathy of the world’s citizens by spoiling their sports.

A century ago, movements arose among the Jews of Europe to reclaim Jewish destiny by teaching Jews to reclaim themselves, physically as well as spiritually. Polish yeshiva students reinvented themselves as Israeli farmers. Jewish soccer leagues were created in Vienna and Budapest, and Jewish basketball teams at community centers in Cleveland and Philadelphia helped spawn the National Basketball Association. Jewish scouting and Zionist pioneering clubs in Nazi-occupied Warsaw taught themselves to shoot and staged an uprising. A spirit of Jewish self-reliance was reborn, and it gave Jews the strength to carry on after the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, with new generations of Jews returning in droves to their pallid desks and study halls, that spirit is needed more than ever.

In next week’s issue, the Forward will take a look at Jewish athletes who will be coming from around the world to compete in the Beijing Olympics. We do this in each Olympic year and every baseball season, partly because we’re proud of them, and more importantly because they are — no less than scholars, artists or philanthropists — a part of the contemporary Jewish experience. We do not do this, as our critics often suggest, in some hope that it will make non-Jews respect Jews, but so that Jews will respect themselves.

Let the games begin.


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