April 09, 2008

 Olympic protests

The International and Chinese Olympic committees have sleepwalked into a marvellous PR disaster over their 20-country torch relay. Pro-Tibet protesters disrupted the London and Paris legs, and are set to repeat the show in San Francisco today. And there's lots more to come. The IOC have already started to shift the blame to the Chinese committee.

Good for the protesters say I - not just because the London ones included my daughter. These protests are nicely targeted: not at the future competitors and spectators, who have a legitimate interest in the holding of the games, but entirely at the vanity and cynicism of the organizers.

The flame of the ancient Olympics meant something precise and important to the Hellenes, whose internecine conflicts were only moderated by the sense of cultural community upheld by their shared religious shrines and festivals. Several of these included sacred games: at Delos, Delphi, Nemea and Corinth as well as Olympia. The Olympic truce was real.

In contrast, the wider political message of the modern Olympics is vapid. The torch in particular, lit at Olympia by pretty girls dressed vaguely as priestesses in skimpy chitons, is a pseudo-religious fraud. The torch relay was actually invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics; its tainted origin lies in the racist propaganda immortalized by the twisted genius of Leni Riefenstahl. No black, Jewish, or disabled athletes needed to apply then. Paradoxically, the public legitimacy of the protests depends on a measure of acceptance of the fraud as a symbol of a real value which the Chinese and the IOC are betraying; rather in the way the Church of England grew from its origin in cynical politics into a genuine religious tradition.

Readers of this blog are likelier than most to suspect direct action as a distortion of representative democracy: demos are the few who care a lot about an issue trying to impose their will on the many who don't care much or have more balanced priorities (take your pick). But even the most Jacobin political scientist will allow exceptions when the authorities are inherently undemocratic (the velvet revolutions of 1989) or acting against the clear majority will (the British mass demonstration against the second Iraq war).

The Olympic protest meets the first criterion. The Chinese Olympic committee is just a branch of the Chinese government which is in turn an emanation of the oligarchy still calling itself the Chinese Communist party. Less well-known is the fact that the IOC is also a cooptative oligarchy. It does not derive its authority from the national Olympic committees, but the reverse. The Olympic movement is as Leninist as Greenpeace.

Let's not be purists about the value of democracy for non-state organisations. It's a bad idea to let bankers and brokers regulate themselves. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Internet Engineering Task Force are cooptative oligarchies that do a very good job for the world and would not be improved by more accountability to the politicians we have, as opposed to the selfless Guardians of Robespierre's theory. But the self-important and out of touch Olympic bureaucrats have no similar claim to our esteem. Les aristos la lanterne!

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