We’re months away from the Opening Ceremony, but I think it’s safe to say that Beijing 2008 is already the most controversial Olympics in recent memory. Everyone from environmental activists to Darfur advocacy groups has a bone to pick with the Chinese government, and it seems as if they’ve all decided to air their concerns at once.

To be fair, the bones in question are pretty big ones. Tacit approval of genocide, continued unrest in Tibet and mind-boggling amounts of air pollution are hardly small matters; rather, they’re issues that the world should pressure the Olympic host to address. At the same time, I have to wonder how appropriate of a soapbox the Olympic Games are and if some of the recent calls for a boycott are misdirected.

Many of the problems that now occupy the headlines were still there when the International Olympic Committee first awarded the games to China in 2001. Tibet, for instance, has been occupied since 1959, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese skies were equally smoggy seven years ago. Expecting the Olympic Games to prompt a sudden reversal of decades-old policies is – to put it mildly – incredibly optimistic. Instead, it is important to recognize that these games represent a stage in the process.

At no other time since the end of the Cold War has China been under such international scrutiny, and steady results are sure to follow. The case of its environmental problems is an example of one such positive change that the Olympics have already brought. Despite lingering concerns about its air quality, China has made a concentrated effort to tackle this problem, and the effects are beginning to show.

Calls for a boycott of the 2008 games focus on legitimate problems that need resolution. But, there is little reason to believe that a boycott would be the right approach. A quick glance at the history books offers plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. The 1980 summer Olympics are the best example. In response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and 65 other countries boycotted the Moscow games. When the dust settled, the final causality count included the shattered dreams of hundreds of Olympic hopefuls and absolutely no change in Soviet policy. Would a similar boycott turn out any differently here? The past is hardly encouraging.

Individual protest is another oft-mentioned possibility. Famed Steven Spielberg recently resigned from his position as an overseas artistic advisor to the Games, citing China’s support for the Sudanese government in the Darfur conflict. Similar personal decisions to abstain from the Games are completely understandable. More problematic, though, is the chance of athletes protesting during the Olympic Games themselves, manipulating the international audience afforded to them.

I agree that the ideal of a noble individual boldly protesting against perceived injustice is appealing. Like many Americans, I have a positive view of the iconic Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. On the other hand, it’s easy to forget that this street goes both ways. This March, Serbian-American swimmer Milorad Cavic wore a T-shirt reading “Kosovo is Serbia” to the medal stand at the European Championships in Aquatics. Like Smith and Carlos, Cavic surely felt justified in his statement on the ex-Serbian province’s recent independence. When I saw the pictures, I couldn’t help but think of the overwhelmingly Albanian population in the new republic, living a day-to-day reality that the Anaheim-born Cavic had never encountered.

For the protesting of any of the issues we disagree with in the West, there are dozens of other concerns that people from around the world find equally valid – concerns with which we may not agree. With that in mind, the International Olympic Committee’s charter makes much sense in banning political demonstrations at the Games. Although it’s easy to retrospectively sympathize with Smith and Carlos – or even, for some, with Cavic – a liberal approach could degenerate the Olympic Games into a carnival of grievances.

Although the Olympics and other international sporting events are created around the ideals of global understanding and unity, the world we live in is a messy place that hardly lives up to them. Despite this, the Games have historically contributed to fostering cooperation, understanding and hope for a better future. Such a positive event should not be compromised for political ends, whether through the boycott of participating nations or the protests of individual participants.

Harun Buljina is an LSA sophomore and a member of the Daily’s editorial board.

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