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Passing the Torch


The protests that have followed almost every step of the Olympic torch this week have probably helped convince several heads of state, and the U.N. secretary-general to say they'll skip the opening ceremonies of the games. That gesture is not small. China's hope that hosting the Games will signify its status as a much-admired society, as well as a world economic power.

But any hope that organizing the Games would make China more open have so far fallen short. China has already shut down thousands of Chinese Web sites and blocked access to thousands of foreign ones. The noted writer, Hu Ja(ph) has just been imprisoned on charges of subverting the state for writing about the thousands of Chinese citizens who have been detained in advance of the Olympics, and the 1.5 million people at the center in housing rights and evictions in Genevisis(ph) have been thrown out of their homes to build the Olympic site.


One-point-five million people who've been offered almost not compensation, just scattered. Usually 1.5 million people being turned out of their homes would be called a world refugee crisis. There would be demonstrations and fundraising concerts in London and Hollywood. And much of the world apparently considers a million and a half Chinese being displaced as business as usually.

Visitors from all over the world will step over the places they used to live and into the Olympic stadium. Interestingly, the torch relay is not a tradition that dates back to the first Games, centuries ago in Olympia, Greece. It was introduced only at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, an event that's come to exemplify how doing business with a dictatorship can twist good intentions.

Americans know how Germany banned Jewish athletes from their team, and Hitler refused to shake the hand of Jesse Owens, the great African-American athlete who won four gold medals. But the esteemed BBC decided not to send its famous track commentator, Harold Abrahams, the former Olympic medalist who was a subject of the film, "Chariots of Fire," to the Games.

Sir Harold was Jewish. A 1946 memo in the BBC archives says sending Abrahams could be seen as discourteous to our hosts. Marty Glickman and Sam Stoeller were pulled from the U.S. relay team - they were Jewish. Edward Brundit(ph), the head of the U.S. Olympic committee, was a member of the America First committee, and his huge construction company had interest in the Third Reich.

The Berlin Olympics just strengthened the grip of the Nazi state on Germany, and showed them that democracies would flinch rather than displease them. Now, Democratic leaders are taking a different approach now. But what about the great multinational corporations that are sponsors of the Beijing Games, including Coca-Cola, General Electric, Adidas, UPS, Panasonic and Budweiser?


Do they risk associating their brand names with repression? Of course, politics should not be a part of the Olympic Games. But liberty and free speech have come to be considered basic human rights, not narrow interests.

To take inspiration from an old Chinese expression: you can't lie down with the running dogs of the dictatorship and not catch a few fleas.

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SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.