The Olympics and Free Speech

The Olympics were political in Berlin, in Helsinki, in Mexico City, Moscow and Los Angeles. They were political in Beijing. And they will be political in Vancouver.

How could they be otherwise? For a few days, the entire world’s attention focuses on one city, one governing power, one culture. Why should it surprise us that an event like that will invite the crazies?

Article 51 of the Olympic Charter prohibits “political, religious or racial propaganda” in Olympic venues or other areas, but who are they trying to kid?

Protest has been an important part of the Olympics since at least the 1930s. From boycotting the entire two weeks, to getting arrested for unfurling a “Free Tibet” banner on the Great Wall, to killing Israeli athletes. Bringing politics into such a staged event can be easy with a little creativity.

In Beijing, protesters were given three zones in which they could practice “freedom of speech.” But the zones were a long way from any of the Olympic events, and to access them for purpose of protest you had to get a permit from the government. Needless to say, such permits are hard to come by in China.

In the meantime, China silenced dissidents by jailing their leaders, including house church pastors and political organizers. They forbid visitors from bringing any printed material, film or other media that could be “detrimental to China’s politics, economy, culture and ethics.”

Leading up to the Beijing Games, protests occurred all over the world against China’s policies regarding Tibet, Sudan, North Korea, Burma, and the country’s treatment of journalists, ministers and social activists.

In Seoul in 1987, such demonstrations led to the overthrowing of a regime and freedom for an entire people. In Beijing, the results may amount to much less.

Vancouver has found some clever ways for dealing with protest. British Columbia’s Bill 13 allows authorities to enter residences and other private property without the owner’s consent to remove or cover up signs they deem critical of the Olympics, as long as residents get 24 hours notice and the authorities enter “reasonably.” That would make for an interesting phone call:

“Excuse me, is this Jenny Smith? Hi, Jenny. This is the police. We just wanted to let you know that in 24 hours we will be breaking into your house to remove your personal property. Don’t worry, we’ll be entering your home and stealing your belongings in a reasonable manner.”

The decision has, quite obviously, been met with much criticism from civil liberties groups.

Vancouver’s Olympic Committee has named their Olympic motto “with glowing hearts,” a name taken from “O Canada,” the country’s national anthem. The lyrics are in the public domain, so unlike the usual Olympic motto, Vancouver’s can’t be trademarked. They have instead trademarked words like “winter” and “gold” in relation to the term “glowing hearts.”

This has allowed them the ability to take small businesses to court that have been around for decades for breaking trademark laws. If your grandpa’s 40-year-old shop is called Glowing Hearts Gold Jewelry, or Glowing Hearts Winter Gear, you might be visiting ole poppy in the slammer.

Other lyrics from “O Canada” include “the true North strong and free!” and “God keep our land glorious and free!”

The idea behind these measures, of course, is that we should be focusing on the sports, and not on politics. But for the men and women whose homes have been entered without their consent, and for the small family businesses facing a huge corporation in court, these measures are at their very heart a political act.

What do you think about Vancouver’s rules?
Can banning protest and propaganda at a global sports event also be a political act?

Further resources:

Bill 13 includes many other measures. The one I refer to in this article is found under the Municipalities Enabling and Validating Act, Part 9, Section 32.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is the most famous political propaganda related to the Olympics. Filmed at Hitler’s behest around the Berlin Games of 1936, it is considered a landmark film with a chilling, Nazi-approved message. I found it captivating, and I’m from a Jewish family, so watch it at your own risk.

Lastly, read Wikipedia’s article on one famous Olympics protest that ended in tragedy: the Tlatelolco Massacre in Mexico City. The people there chanted what many others have since, though perhaps in spirit – “We don’t want the Olympics, we want revolution!”

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Comments
One Response to “The Olympics and Free Speech”
  1. Darrell says:

    Since the dawn of recorded human history people have organized into groups for protection, order, commerce, etc. The battle has always been the power and rights of individuals against the overwhelming, irrestible power of the State. That battle is why the American Revolution was fought but now perhaps it must be fought again. The State constantly seeks to expand and to conquer. I am therefore, all in favor of individual rights and the right to be heard, to peaceably assemble, etc. The issue here though is whether the Olympic Games is the right venue and I have always been opposed to politicizing the games. Groups of which I am a member proposed urging the American Government to boycott Beijing but I said no I will not be a part of that. It damages the moment that these young men and women have worked their whole lives for.How selfish. I remember Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s raised fist protest at Mexico City like it was yesterday. At the time I was so disappointed for the other athletes and for the American team Tommie Smith was the best sprinter in the world but he ruined the moment. Now I have lived a few years and seen a few things and I understand why they did it and I sympathize. Perhaps though, a more honorable thing would have been to decline membership on the team. Governments around the world today are so vile and wicked that they should not be allowed to run the Olympic Games. But then who else would do it. who else has a license to create money on their computers? Oh yes, now I remember but that’s another topic isn’t it.

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