Finnish politicians, or at least those in the governing coalition, appear to be split on whether or not they should boycott the summer olympic games in Beijing.
Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (centre party) has made it clear that he will attend the opening ceremony and stay for a few days to watch events with Finns competing in them. He made it clear that he thought that Olympics is a sporting event and not a political one. Vanhanen’s decision has been criticised by all of the candidates for the chairmanship of the opposition SDP. Although, interestingly, it seems that President Tarja Halonen (who is a nominal social democrat, although Finnish presidents resign party membership when elected) will attend.
The Minister of Culture and Sport Stefan Wallin (Swedish peoples’ party Sfp) has made it clear that he will be on his summer holiday during the period of the Olympics, with no further comment, clearly trying to avoid entering into the controversy.
Today, in a prominent difference of opinion with the prime minister, the foreign minister Alexander Stubb (coalition party Kokoomus) said that he wouldn’t attend if he were invited. He did say he thought it would be ok to participate if China began negotiations with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Clearly, Stubb does not share Vanhanen’s opinion that the olympics is just a sporting event.
From both the statements and the actions of the Chinese government, it’s hard to see how the games are removed from politics. The Chinese domestic media’s coverage of the worldwide torch relay has clear propaganda undertones, with the protests that dogged the torch’s progress in places like London, Paris and San Francisco glossed over and choice pictures of the flame with dignitaries emphasised (and often the only pictures shown). The Chinese government were probably hoping to use the Beijing Olympics as the ultimate propaganda tool – a way to make China look great and impressive on the world stage and show their own people that China is popular abroad, with world leaders there sharing in China’s achievement. Their plans for this have horribly back-fired, with it instead focusing the world’s gaze towards China’s human rights abuses. It’s hard not to imagine the Communist party’s top officials cursing over ever applying to host them.
Sport, ideally, should be apolitical. It would be grossly unfair to prevent the athletes from attending and competing at the games. After all, many of them will have spent the entirity of the last 4 years (if not longer) preparing for olympic competition. It would be cruel to deprive them of their chance to compete. However, politicians do not need to be at a sporting event for it to take place. In fact, politicians – who are, to state the obvious, political in nature – give the event a political aspect by their very attendance. People like Vanhanen and Halonen are, after all, not going as private people to spectate. They’re going to represent Finland by virtue of their political roles. So, it’s rather rich for them to suggest there’s nothing political about the games in that context. Thus, I do think they should reconsider their decisions to go. They can send a message to the Chinese regime that they will not endorse a country which is grossly violating human rights by staying at home. Better still, they can use the Olympics as leverage. Tell China they’ll come – but only if China improves its human rights situation markedly and starts talking to the Dalai Lama. This event might be the only opportunity the rest of the world has this much leverage over China for a long time. Perhaps our politicians use take it.