In 2004, with the Olympics back in Athens, the Greek Olympic Committee had a wonderful idea: rather than the usual Olympic torch relay (starting at Mt. Olympus, and then around Athens, and then off to the host country (which in 2004 would have been a really short torch relay), the Greeks decided to put the torch on a global relay … sending it to cool places that have never hosted the games (like South America and Africa) and to old haunts (like Los Angeles and London). It was a swell idea.
So swell in fact that the Chinese decided to make it a part of their Olympics ….. how great to send the flame to the top of Mt. Everest (which is part of China), and through cities like Paris and San Francisco.
Of course the Olympic torch relay turned into a lightning rod for everyone with a beef against China (which is basically everyone except for South Africa, Cuba, Vietnam, and Venezuela these days). What the Chinese envisioned as a global trek to unify the world as a prelude to showing off the massive presentation of China to the world spiraled down into a P.R. nightmare. In hindsight the United States, already dealing with its own quasi pariah status in the world was one of the better behaved countries on the tour. Other stops were far from friendly. chinese soldiers (in plain clothes) shoving at protesters, cuts to live feeds to China as protesters on human rights and Tibet outnumbered ordinary onlookers on the routes. The Chinese were probably kicking themselves for doing this.
The IOC agreed, and yesterday decreed that there will be no more global torch relays. The torch relay will revert back to its original pre-2004 plan: run the torch around Athens, get it on a plane to the host nation, run it around there and end it at the host city for the games to open.
I certainly can’t disagree with the protesters, and I at least credit the IIOC for consistency that will undoubtedly only help future Olympic host cities.
The IOC has made a perpetual point of staying apolitical, even when it really should have used some bullying power to step up. There was no problem putting the games in Germany TWICE in 1936 and allowing Hitler to co-opt the games for a Nazi agenda. There was little problem putting them in Moscow in 1980 (human rights abuses and an invasion of Afghanistan). Lest I be considered hypocritical, yes, the U.S. hosted the Olympics in 1904 and 1932 (and a couple of Winter Games in there) when Jim Crow laws were still the law of the land in parts of the nation. Here is another example of the IOC making sure that anyone with a political agenda (except the host nation of course) gets squelched. It is what it is, but they have a century of consistency on this issue.
Of course, this benefits a few nations down the road: London gets the games in 2012, and there are still a number of nations with an axe to grind against the Brits. If Chicago gets the games in 2016, there will almost certainly be people lining up to stage protests. Ironically, while Chicago has a history of protests that descended into riots (from Haymarket Square to the 1968 Democratic Convention), I’m not so sure that there are many people who would support such shenanigans now a days. Even if Tokyo gets the 2016 games, the anti-whaling crowd would see a golden opportunity to get some free publicity.
Is it a good thing that the IOC moved this way? Difficult to say.