Shut Up and Compete: Putting a Gag on Olympic Athletes

Beijing OlympicsI'll never forget hearing nearly seven years ago that China had been selected as the host country for the 2008 Olympics. Now the time has come.

I have very mixed feelings about the Beijing Olympics. I'm glad because it will put China under the greatest world scrutiny it's been under in modern times. Since China is extraordinarily image conscious, this may restrain the hand of persecution against believers. Whether or not it does, it will certainly result in the gospel being brought into China, because every Christian athlete, coach, trainer, and support personnel can bring in a gospel witness and many will bring in Chinese gospel literature. They won't have as much freedom to go about the countryside as with many Olympics, but they certainly will be taken to the Great Wall outside Beijing, and the summer palace and the temple of heaven and other places that bolster China's image. Ultimately, I believe the Lord will bring much good out of this. Also, with China being the focus of world attention, there will be more prayer, and God will answer.

On the down side, should a country that violates human rights in such dramatic ways be rewarded by the global community by being given the Olympics? No. Ethically speaking, it was a poor decision. It sends the message "human rights aren't that big a deal—you can persecute people, imprison them for religious and political reasons, but we'll still honor you by making you host of the Olympics." Or it says, "Your propaganda efforts are effective—you've convinced us civil rights are being upheld in China." In any case, it sends a "we'll look the other way" message.

So, on ethical grounds I oppose the decision, but for the other reasons I cited, I certainly welcome many of the good things that will likely come from it. (The end doesn't justify the means, but when there are good ends we can still be glad for them. Like Joseph to his brothers who'd sold him into slavery: "You intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, to save many lives.")

Will China's general population benefit? Certainly there will be a huge flow of money into the country, likely a long-term increase in tourism as they enjoy this influx of tourist money (which should ultimately help the church and the penetration of the gospel). Beijing will no doubt demolish ghetto housing that's visible to cameras. Will these poor people be compensated and relocated to better conditions? Probably not. Will they be allowed to inhabit whatever nice structures are built in place of the old hovels? Probably not. But we'll see. Overall, I would think more Chinese would be helped than harmed economically by the Olympics. But once again, if you and your child are the ones being harmed this doesn't make it easier. Everything is calculated for image and prestige and economic prosperity, especially that of the party, the elite. If the people benefit in the process, this is a nice bonus, but not the party's main concern. I believe the time between now and the 2008 Olympics will put China before the world in unprecedented ways. Certainly there are two nations on the earth around whom more revolves than any others—the U.S. and China. (I wasn't thinking mainly in these terms when I chose China rather than Sudan as a setting, but it confirms the strategic timing of Safely Home, and I pray God will use that to get the message to more people.)

I'm placing here an article on the Olympics and human right issues, by Chuck Colson, a brother I respect very much. He's kindly endorsed several of my books, including Safely Home, a novel set in China. Chuck was the founder of Prison Fellowship, one of the ministries that EPM supports with our royalties. I wouldn't support them if I didn't believe wholeheartedly in their work. If you're not familiar with them, please check them out.

Shut Up and Compete

By Chuck Colson

This summer the Olympics will be held in Beijing, a decision fraught with controversy since it was announced back in 2001. China's human-rights record is abysmal—from forced abortions, to persecuting Christians and other people of faith, to clamping down on free speech, to supporting a government that has committed genocide in Darfur.

The Olympic committee, back in 2001, said choosing Beijing would be a catalyst for change in China. It "may help to liberalize a country," said the committee's vice-president, Thomas Bach of Germany. But that will not happen when, as the London Daily Mail puts it, you "kow tow" to the host country, and you tell athletes to keep quiet-which is exactly what is happening.

To comply with the international Olympic Charter, Britain's Olympic athletes are being forced to sign contracts promising they will not say anything about China's human-rights abuses. If they violate the contract, athletes will find themselves on a plane headed home. The contract could mean that an athlete "who witnesses someone being mistreated on the way to a stadium" could not talk to colleagues about it. And they would have to "exercise self-censorship" on blogs and e-mails.

And while U.S. athletes may speak freely—they cannot do so at any official Olympic venue or press conference. Come on.

Some have said this year's gagging of athletes is reminiscent of the Nazi salute British competitors gave at a soccer match in Berlin in 1938. "Imposing compulsory vows of silence is an affront to our athletes, and in China it will be viewed as acquiescence," said human-rights advocate Lord David Alton. He noted that "each year 8,000 executions take place
in China, political and religious opinion is repressed, journalists jailed and the internet and overseas broadcasts heavily censored." Alton was dead-on when he said, "For our athletes to be told that they may not make any comment makes a mockery of our own country's belief in free speech."

Last August, International Olympic Committee Chairman Jacques Rogge said, "We stand for human rights, we stand for strict social values, but we are only a sports organization." Well, which is it? Are the Olympics a force that will "help liberalize a country" as Bach said earlier, or "only a sports organization"?

To carry on with the Games as if nothing is wrong in China is a serious blow to human rights and those who fight to uphold them.

Steven Spielberg recognized this and withdrew from his role as an artistic adviser to the Games' opening and closing ceremonies. According to the Wall Street Journal, Spielberg cited "China's connection to the government in Sudan and the controversy over Darfur." Good for Spielberg.

"About the only justification for participating in the Beijing Games is that it offers an opportunity to encourage more awareness about human rights," says Lord Alton.

The Games will go on. But to paraphrase Alton, the only justification for watching them will be for American viewers to raise the human-rights issue in letters-to-the-editor, speaking with lawmakers and Olympic sponsors, and shining a spotlight on Chinese repression. Even if our athletes can not speak out—and I bet some will—we can. And we must.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries