Spielberg Rekindles Flame of Olympic Protest

Protesting Chinese policies in Darfur, movie mogul Steven Spielberg quits his gig as artistic director to the Beijing Olympic Games. David Wallechinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Olympics, looks at a history of dissent.

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BILL WOLFF (Announcer): This is NPR.

MATT MARTINEZ, host:

David and Alison, back to you.

ALISON STEWART, host:

Matt Martinez, thank you.

MARTINEZ: You're very welcome.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, host:

Thanks, Matt.

The Olympic Games are presented as a symbol of international harmony, countries square off in a wholesome competition, not bloody battle. There's this spectacular athleticism and the promise of a window into a different land. And this year it's China. But the games are never just about the games.

Last week, there was another reminder of that hard truth. Steven Spielberg quit his job as an artistic advisor to the Beijing games in protest of China's role as patron of the government of Sudan.

To learn more about the politics of the Olympics, we have Olympic historian David Wallechinsky on the line. He is also something of an expert in repressive regimes. This week, he's annual piece about the world's 10 worst dictators came out in Parade magazine.

Hi, David.

Mr. DAVID WALLECHINSKY (Author, "The Complete Book of the Olympics"): Hi. How are you?

FOLKENFLIK: Doing well, thanks.

Let's start with Spielberg first. What on earth was he thinking by signing on to the Olympics?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: I'm sure that he wanted to, you know, be part of a large spectacle. I think he was probably well-meaning, but I don't think he realized what he was getting involved in.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he obviously has this rich history, not only the director and producer but notably concern on human rights, "Schindler's List" and the Shoah project, you know. There's a question of Darfur. Tell is a bit about that and why he would want to pressure China on that.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: It's because - well, first of all, I should say you mentioned my worst dictator's list and I have Omar al-Bashir of Sudan as number two on that list. And Hu Jintao of China as number five. So we're really dealing with…

FOLKENFLIK: It's kind of a murderers row.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yeah.

ALISON STEWART, host:

So we're on your wheel house is what you're saying?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is not great and, you know, the thing is that China supplies Bashir and Sudan with weapons so that's why a lot of Darfur activist like Mia Farrow and now Spielberg have tried to use the Olympics as a way to call attention to Darfur. I really think it's unfortunate in a way, even though I believe they're very well meaning and they're on the right track. I think it's unfortunate because by emphasizing China's connection with Darfur, it takes - it gives a break to the Chinese communist party because it draws attention away to their human rights abuses in their own country.

FOLKENFLIK: Mm-hmm. When are the moments that which external pressure can work on the host countries?

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: They - you know, the highlight of the Olympic movement affecting politics and country domestically was the 1998 Olympics went to Seoul, South Korea. At the time that the Olympics were given to South Korea, it was a military dictatorship. The IOC, International Olympic Committee, made it clear in a quiet way, you know, not a public way that the South Koreans could lose the Olympics. And so much to their credit, actually, the South Korean military stepped down and allowed free democratic elections to take place. South Korea has been a democracy ever since. And this is a great story and a great coup for the Olympic movement. However, I think it delude - you know, they were deluded in to thinking that with that success, they could do the same thing with China. But China is a whole another story.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, tell us a little bit about - I mean detail for us some of the things that China has done in its own boarder to its own people that rate them as number five on your list this year.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Well, first of all, the Chinese Communist Party - well, it's the only party in the county, there is no freedom of speech. They control all the media. There are forced labor camps. There are forced abortions in China. I actually lived in China recently and I asked an Olympic official there, you know, what about these forced abortions and he said, well, yeah, I know that goes on but we think that our family policy is good for the environment. I had never heard forced abortions portrayed as an environmental issue before.

So I think they're living in a whole and other world. The Internet is censored. I stayed in the - purposely stayed in the hotel where the International Olympic Committee will be and I was not able to access Wikipedia. I was not able to access BBC News, reviews of certain films about China, etcetera, etcetera.

FOLKENFLIK: So other than freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of, you know, of a…

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: religion. Religion.

FOLKENFLIK: …religion. Freedom of the choice of how you choose to live your life as a family - a pretty free country is what you're saying.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Yeah. Other than that, everything is okay.

FOLKENFLIK: Right.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: But other, you know, and that and moving about a half a million people out of their homes to make way to build the Olympic related venues.

FOLKENFLIK: So, tell us a little bit, I mean, you know, tell us about some of the more memorable episodes in which the Olympics have been previously been politicized.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: People don't - I think a lot of people may remember the Olympic boycott of 1980 and '84, but actually - well, first of all, 1936, the Nazi Olympics as they were known, where Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tried to use the Olympics to showcase their ideology. It didn't work too well because the hero of the Olympics was a black American, Jesse Owens, and the German people just considered him the greatest person in the world.

So that didn't work quite as well but they certainly gave it a shot. But I don't think that people realize that the first Olympic boycott actually took place in 1956.

There were two boycotts, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon withdrew their teams to protest the invasion - the Israeli-led invasion of the Suez Canal. And the Netherlands - Holland, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the '56 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

So this has been going on for quite a while then you had the African boycott of 1976. The Jimmy Carter led U.S. - a boycott of 1980 of the Moscow Olympics and the revenge boycott led by the Soviet Union when the Olympics where in Los Angeles in 1984.

FOLKENFLIK: So we get worked up every four years, but in a sense, we sort of are forgetting that almost every cycle, it seems like the boycott is more the rule than the exception or some sort of charged political climate.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: What's interesting, though, is that after '84, things calmed down quite a bit. We've had a number of almost politics-free games, or relatively so. I mean, the Olympic is part of the world so it's always going to be political. But the '88, particularly, in 1992, and 2000, when the games were in Barcelona and Sydney, the games went really, really well.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I'm sure that the decline of Cold War tensions had a lot to do with that.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Absolutely.

FOLKENFLIK: I guess one question I would have is China is such a major economic power, growing at political influence that it's, you know, I wonder how much they care about what the outside world thinks.

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Well, that's it exactly. They couldn't care less. They know that we're dependent on them. China is our number two trading partner - the United States' number two trading partner behind Canada. They own a lot of out national debt. We can't do without them at this point. All that cheap labor and so fort. What they're most concerned about, the Chinese Communist party is keeping any protest or dissent off of television so that the Chinese people themselves don't find out about it.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, and we'll see how that plays out. David Wallechinsky, thanks for joining us. He's the author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics."

Mr. WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.

STEWART: You know what? I covered the Olympics last time in Turin, or Torino. And one of the things that was really interesting about it, the locals have no sense of it.

FOLKENFLIK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: They couldn't afford the tickets.

FOLKENFLIK: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: They closed up shop. They had no interest in being involved. So it's interesting to see the dichotomy in how the world gets excited about it and these little place where it's happening, the people have very involvement.

FOLKENFLIK: It's totally a different worlds.

STEWART: Totally a different worlds.

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