A brief history of Olympic dissent: Beijing 2008

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 22 August 2008
Keeping the torch burning cover

Keeping the Torch Burning: Terror, Protest and the Games is an alternative history of the Olympic Games, one that focuses on the social and political events that have defined each competition. Nationalism, separatism, feminism, racial equality and human rights ring loud in this Guardian Short, written by Martin Belam and uniquely told through first-hand reporting from the Guardian and Observer.
“Keeping the Torch Burning: Terror, Protest and the Games” - £2.99 on Kindle

During the course of the Olympics I've been looking at the history of dissent, protest, politics and terrorism associated with the Games. The 2008 organisers must have hoped that following the disruption to this year's international Torch Relay, they had seen the last of such incidents.

Konnie Huq during the Olympic Torch Relay

However, it wasn't to be, and even before the glittering opening ceremony there had been terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, and 'Free Tibet' protests in Beijing. Even the ceremony itself came in for criticism for being 'faked'.

'Fake' firework footprint

The 'fake' ceremony

Little Yang Peiyi has no doubt been scarred for life, after the world's media gleefully exposed that her crooked teeth meant she was backstage singing with the voice of an angel, whilst her more photogenic counterpart, Lin Miaoke, was miming front of house.

2008 ceremony 'singers'

There was also outrage that some of the shots of the fireworks display were pre-recorded. It still staggers me, of course, that the printed press can work themselves up into such a moral vexation over a story which basically boils down to "television production uses television production techniques"

Olympic stadium fireworks

In the UK the Daily Mail took an interesting editorial line, suggesting that this took the pressure off the organisers of the opening ceremony for London 2012, who otherwise must have been wondering how they could top the staggering precision of the display in Beijing. I'm not sure, though, whether this is because the Mail, so critical of fake British TV, is suggesting that London has 4 years to pre-record the whole thing...

Olympic torch lit

Terrorism in Xinjiang

More seriously than whether a nine year old girl was lip-synching or not, before and during the Games, there were terrorist attacks in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang. 16 police officers were killed in one attack, and at least two other people were killed in an attack which took place on the second full day of Olympic competition.

Xinjiang

The perpetrators are often described as a Muslim separatist minority, the Uyghurs, who in the thirties had their own 'Turkish Islamic Republic of Eastern Turkestan' in the area. It is easy to overlook how large a 'minority' can be in a country with the population size of China. The 20 million Uyghurs number nearly twice the population of Greece.

'Free Tibet' posters in Beijing and Hong Kong, and the 'censored' blog

Free Tibet protest in Beijing

Iain Thom and Lucy Fairbrother managed to breach Beijing's tight security cordon, and unveil posters which took the Olympics official slogan 'One world, one dream' and turned it into 'One world, one dream, free Tibet'. They were promptly deported from China, but not before illustrating the way that modern communication media have transformed protests. Iain had a conversation with reporters on the ground via his mobile phone whilst in the middle of unfurling the banner.

There were also accusations that Lucy's website had been tampered with. Her mother believed that a couple of lines had been inserted that were 'not her daughters writing style'. Viewing the site from within China at the time it was difficult to judge, because the blog in question still went on to talk about China's "bloody invasion" of Tibet, which you think any censor or hacker might have removed. By the time the Games started, the page was no longer accessible from within China.

Lucy's page as a 404

On the first day of the equestrian sports, being held in Hong Kong, a protester, Christina Chan, was removed forcibly from the arena after unveiling a Tibetan flag.

Christina Chan is ejected in Hong Kong

Sports For Peace

Sports For Peace

On the eve of the Games beginning, over 100 Olympians signed an open letter from Sports For Peace appealing for an improvement in China's Human Rights record.

"We all hope that the Olympic Summer Games in China will be a great success and that the Olympic ideals will come to life. That is why we are asking you:

* to enable a peaceful solution for the issue of Tibet and other conflicts in your country with respect to fundamental principles of human rights.
* to protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion in your country, including Tibet.
* to ensure that human rights defenders are no longer intimidated or imprisoned.
* to stop the death penalty."

American swimmer Amanda Beard's anti-fur protest

...or, as the super soaraway Sun put it - "Playboy swim girl is fur-ious. Sizzling swimmer stages naked protest against fur trade at Olympic Games"...

Amanda Beard Beijing fur naked protest

Amanda Beard's press conference to launch the PETA campaign had to be moved from outside the Olympic aquatics venue where it was first planned. Chinese Olympic officials did not want the protest associated with the venue.

The Beijing 'sugar-cube'

The Darfur Olympics

The Darfur Olympics were a week long campaign to 'keep the spotlight on the people of Darfur during the Beijing Games'. Celebrities like Mia Farrow and R.E.M. took part in the campaign, which provided an alternative opening ceremony, and video clips and webcasts from refugee camps in the Darfur region.

Darfur Olympics image

Georgia and Russia

Not all of the protest and dissent in Beijing was negative. As the Games got underway, Georgian and Russian forces were engaged in a fierce battle over the break-away region of South Ossetia. That didn't stop their athletes at the Games showing the peaceful spirit of the Olympics.

Russian and Georgian athletes on the podium

Georgian Nino Salukvadze and Russian Natalia Paderina both took medals in the women's shooting competition, when back in Nino's homeland the shooting was for real. They posed together on the podium afterwards, and begged that politics be kept out of sport.

Georgian volleyball president, Levan Akhvlediani was reading from a different script:

"If we need, we are ready to go back to Georgia like soldiers, because our country needs it"

Beijing in 2008 - The verdict

It will be a few weeks yet before we can judge whether Beijing 2008 has also been a success, or whether the Games have been overshadowed by that constant feature of Olympics - politics, protest and dissent. I hope, before the Games conclude, that sportsmanship and camaraderie will have overshadowed protests about Tibet, counterfeit merchandise and "spambush" marketing, security concerns and issues of censorship.

Next...

Just a day before the 2005 London Underground suicide bombings, London was granted the honour of hosting the 2012 Olympics. In the final part of this series, I'll be looking at some of the dissent and protest that the next Olympic Games has already attracted.

This is one of a series of articles looking at the history of political protest, terrorism and dissent at the Olympic Games.
1896 |  The pre-war years: 1900-1912 |  The inter-war years: 1920-1932 |  1936 |  The post-war years: 1948-1964 |  1968 |  1972 |  1976 |  1980 |  1984 |  1988 & 1992 |  1996 |  2000 |  2004 |  2008 |  2012

In 2012 an expanded version of this series, featuring material from the Guardian & Observer archives, was published as an ebook: “Keeping the Torch Burning: Terror, Protest and the Games

Keeping the torch burning cover

1 Comment

Let's also not forget the Chinese government's generous allowance of protests at the Olympics, dedicating three areas for 'approved' protesters, and then not issuing any permits.

Indeed, the very act of requesting a permit got two women in their seventies sent for "re-education"

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