Citius Altius Fortius: the Political Games Around the Olympics

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“Faster, higher, stronger”.  This is the motto of the Olympic Games proposed by the French Baron de Coubertin, who in 1896 revived the ancient Greek games (8th century BC to 4th century AD) as a program of moral beauty.  The modern Olympic games exult in the aesthetics of sports without borders, committed to the idea that the most important thing is not to win, but to participate, just as life is the journey, not the destination, and truth is not the ephemeral triumph but the honourable competition. Sports contribute to Peace and understanding, precisely in the sense of the UN Charter and the UNESCO Constitution.

The Olympic Flag which rises at every Olympic event and flies over the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee at Lausanne, Switzerland, has five intertwining rings which represent the five continents of Planet Earth and their fraternal interdependence.

Perhaps better than any other human activity, sports illustrates the aspiration of all human beings to go beyond the limits, go faster, climb higher, be stronger.  In a way it is the unwritten credo of humanity, the desire for progress, moving forward, doing things better, both individually and collectively. Watching the Olympics shows us what the human being is capable of – and gives us a sense of wonderment an humility.

The common aspirations of humanity are reflected in the UN Charter, which is committed to development through international cooperation, as laid down in articles 55-60 (Chapter IX).  The Charter is inspired by an optimistic vision of a better world based on cooperation, multilateralism, a holistic approach to human rights, and, yes, a form of constructive competition, as we experience in sports.

Again and again we witness how sports have an unique potential to advance friendship across borders and manifest common human traits such as love of beauty and coherence, the excitement of discovery and surprise, the explosion of laughter and joy, the pursuit of that elusive satisfaction that great achievement can provide.

Unfortunately the Olympic ideal has been increasingly politicized.  Again and again some countries pretend that they can instrumentalize sports for their own geopolitical ambitions.  These countries betray the humanistic credo of the Olympic games when they weaponize sports to denounce and exclude others, instead of endeavouring to build bridges of friendship, understanding and inclusion.

The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have been denounced by some countries as the “genocide games”, based on malicious and mendacious evidence-free allegations of human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.  A few countries have engaged in a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics, among them the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and India (because of a Chinese torchbearer had served during the 2020 border clashes in the Himalayas).

There is an old saying that people in glass houses should not throw stones.  Similarly, we also remember the admonition by Christ to those who were about to lapidate a woman “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Gospel according to St. John Chapter 8, verse 7).

As we know from the Universal Periodic Reports before the UN Human Rights Council, all of these five countries have major human rights problems.  They are not without sin.

The United States has a history of aggression against many countries in all five continents.  See Professor Stephen Kinzer’s revealing book “Overthrow”.  An in its dealings with the Afro-american population, the Unites States has a long history of slavery, lynching, segregation, discrimination, police brutality (see the Black Lives Matter movement).  What is less known is the history of the destruction of the ten million original inhabitants of the North American continent, the Crees, Cherokees, Sioux, Dakotas, Pequots and Navajos.  In his 1964 book “Why we can’t wait” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “:  “Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it.” (New American Library, Signet Book, New York, p.120)

These words are tough to hear, but unfortunately very true.  That is perhaps why this aspect of Martin Luther King’s legacy is systematically ignored by the media, why it is not taught in high schools and universities.  I sincerely hope that one day history will give credit to Dr. King for taking up the cause of the indigenous.  Unfortunately, nearly sixty years after Dr. King wrote those words, racism against indigenous Americans persists, and many do not forget the signs that hung in South Dakota stores, in Arizona near the Navajo “Reservation” and in so many other places in the American West:  “No dogs or Indians allowed”.

Canada, similarly, engaged in genocide against its indigenous populations.  The few remaining indigenous were put into “residential schools” to be de-Indianized.  As Duncan Campbell Scott, Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, once wrote: ‘I want to get rid of the Indian problem […] Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question’ (p. 21). One may add that Campbell added insult to injury by referring to an ‘Indian’ problem, when he meant the right of identity of the Original Nations of Canada—the Algonquin, the Lingit, the Mi’kmaq, the Mohawk, the Oneida, and the Squamish—none of them inhabitants of the Indian Sub-continent! The best book in the field is perhaps the dissertation by Tamara Starblanket “Suffer the Little Children. Genocide, Indigenous Nations and the Canadian State” (Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2018, new edition 2021).

Australia has a similar sad history of genocide against the native aborigines of the Australian Continent and Tasmania.  At least since the Apology Resolution by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008 a gradual awareness of the problem has actually made into the mainstream media.

The United Kingdom has an equally dismal human rights record through the centuries.  The history of the oppression of the Indian subcontinent by the British Empire, the exploitation of the huge territory that today encompasses India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would fill many volumes.  Most pertinent in the discussion about the UK diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics are the crimes of the British Empire against China.  Indeed, in 1839-42 and again in 1853 the British Empire waged aggressive wars against the China in order to force the Chinese to buy British opium.  These obscene “Opium Wars” had their origin in the fact that Britain was a Narco-empire and Queen Victoria was a Narco-queen, who forcefully sold Opium to China so that the balance of trade would be OK, since the Brits coveted Chinese silks, porcelains and other luxury goods.  Out of the Chinese defeat and humiliation by Britain emerged the colony of Hong Kong, which China only recovered in 1997.  That is yet another reason why–  when the UK today criticizes China because of its policies in Hong Kong –reasonable people should remember that the UK had no right to have been in Hong Kong in the first place and that the UK should instead pay trillions of pounds to the Chinese in compensation for the outrages committed by the British Empire and by the United Kingdom in Hong Kong for a century and a half.

Finally we come to India, which has oppressed the Kashmiri people since the Partition of the Indian Sub-Continent, oppressed them, exploited them and committed genocide on them. The reign of terror against the Kashmiri continues, notwithstanding strong criticism in the UN Human Rights Council and countless side-events held at the United Nations demanding a referendum as envisaged in Security Council resolution 47 of 1948.

Why then this “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics?  Would it not be more in keeping with the spirit of the Olympic movement and with the spirit of all world religions if we would call for a “truce”, a Treuga Dei – at least for the duration of the games.  Perhaps then we would learn to live together as envisaged in the UN Charter and in the UNESCO Constitution.

Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).