A Wayward Word's Worth

Going for gold: an Olympic odyssey


(originally published Sept. 9, 2008 in the Aquinian)

PEI pentathlete Kara Grant (left) strikes a pose before competing in the controversial 2008 games

PEI pentathlete Kara Grant (left) strikes a pose before competing in the controversial 2008 games

It wasn’t until Kara Grant actually marched out to begin the pentathlon that it finally hit her- after years of intense training, sacrifice and dedication, she had finally made it to the Olympic games. Beijing was a long way to come for the young Stratford PEI native, and she swam, fenced, shot, rode, and sprinted her way to the finish line to place thirty first.

While it wasn’t the podium performance she was hoping for, Grant says that the experience alone was worth the effort.

“The Chinese were so amazing, so warm and welcoming,” Grant said, adding that they went the extra mile to make these games especially spectacular.

Dermod Travis of the Canada Tibet Committee said the Olympics’ spectacle showed China’s true nature to the world. “Symbolically I think that the opening ceremonies demonstrated how far the government of China is willing to go in order to present its image of purity,” he said.

But he feels the ceremonies showed that will was far from good. He cited examples like the fact that their seven year old patriotic singer was replaced because of the quality of her teeth, or that none of the 56 other children in the ceremony– each supposedly meant to represent one of China’s different ethnic groups– were Tibetan and were actually made up of mostly the Han majority, and that the military itself paraded under the fireworks and flashing lights. “I think that all of this adds to the general perception outside of China of the authoritative regime that their government actually is,” Travis said.

Travis thinks that the rest of the world is far too complacent with that perception of China- especially after the crackdown in Tibet last March that left over 200 protestors dead. “I think the world is struggling with how to deal with the government of China when these situations arise,”

Travis said, but he was quick to add that the Canada Tibet Committee intends to keep pressuring our government to take that needed action. “If enough people continue to speak out, hopefully governments will deal not only with this crisis in Tibet, but also the broader human rights crisis in China.”

Vivienne Poy, of the Senate of Canada, was raised in Hong Kong, and she tries to see this issue from both Western and Eastern perspectives. She agreed the crackdown on Tibetan protestors was indeed a crisis. But she said that the Chinese government showed a different, more redemptive side after dealing with the Sichuan earthquake back in May, which left five million homeless and almost 70 thousand dead.

“People were amazed that the leaders came out to offer support, that the People’s Liberation Army went right away to help, that the media was let in to report on the devastation,” Poy said.

Grant brandished a sword in the pentathlon's fencing portion before placing 31st. Afterward she blasted any boycotting of the games. "The athletes have worked so hard to compete," she said. "Let them have their glory."

Grant brandished a sword in the pentathlon's fencing portion before placing 31st. Afterward she blasted any boycotting of the games. "The athletes have worked so hard to compete," she said. "Let them have their glory."

“There was this new openness,” Poy added, “As opposed to before when they stood behind the bamboo curtain and nobody was allowed to know what was going on.”

“China went from villain to victim overnight,” Travis agreed. He had high hopes that the Chinese government would find more than despair in the rubble- that it would unearth a new chance to show compassion for it’s people. “China had, and deserved, a great deal of public sympathy and support of foreign governments during their relief efforts,” Travis said. “And for a moment their government looked like they’d learned some lessons and were prepared to open up on some levels,” However, he feels that new enlightenment was short lived. “The minute the Chinese people themselves started criticizing, we saw their government immediately respond as they did in a Tibet- with crackdowns and oppression of the media.”

He said one of the major criticisms that came out of the earthquake’s aftermath was sub par or “Tofu,” rebuilding that caused a stir amongst the victims. “You saw a number of Chinese citizens who were protesting, you saw the media themselves begin to question corruption at the local level and building standards at the local level,” Travis said, adding that those protests were silenced overnight. “I think that this is where China may have gingerly put a foot forward, but it needs to become secure enough in itself that it can accept criticism and respond accordingly, without having to bring in the army.”

But Poy feels the government’s efforts were sincere, and that it can’t be easy to offer relief to so many victims. She was also quick to point out that the last 30 years have been the least bloody in the past couple of hundred years of China’s history, and that the response to the earthquake was just one example of the Chinese government’s significant progress. “China has progressed by leaps and bounds in the last few decades,” she said. “The average income has risen, with a huge middle class, and the level of poverty has dropped. There’s more personal freedom than ever, and the country has grown into an economic superpower.”

“I think the 203 Tibetans that were killed during the uprising might beg to differ that things have improved,” Travis said. “If you simply say that we should not criticize the Chinese government because it is going to progress at the rate that it has chosen to progress, then you are not going to bring about change for 1.3 billion people. They won’t have the right to criticize, to decent, to worship freely, to educate their children freely, and to be equal partners in their own society.”

He added that dire reports from Amnesty International from the past 30 years don’t share this sense of progress- Amnesty being one of the websites blocked to journalists during their stay in China. Travis said that this censorship goes directly against the Chinese government’s freedom of the press commitment to the International Olympic Committee when they vied to host the games. He said this is just one of many broken promises- from pollution reductions to improvements in personal freedoms and human rights- that the Chinese government made to the World Trade Organization and the International Olympic Committee. “If the government of China is prepared to make commitments to win concessions from the west, than the west has a duty to hold them to those commitments,” he said.

Poy said that, since coming out of the oppressive Mao era, the Chinese are now taking an opportunity to fulfill those commitments, to become part of the world community, and that means learning what the western world expects. “I know China has come a long way, but there is still a lot to be learned – international law, the importance of freedom of speech, and also freedom of the press, that all has to come,” she said. “But, especially for people who watch the Chinese language news, it’s obvious that things are changing. Maybe it hasn’t reached what the west expects yet, but things are moving in the right direction for China, and have been for quite some time.”

Poy added that it wasn’t long ago that we could all hear the FLQ’s cries of “Vive Quebec!” or the first shots fired in Iraq, or see the watery graves in New Orleans or the smoke and ash of the L.A. riots. She said we in the west have never been free of tension, have never been innocent of crimes against humanity, and we are in no place to be pointing fingers.

“It’s difficult enough for 33 million Canadians to see eye to eye, let alone the 56 different ethnic groups in China with a population of 1.3 billion.” Poy said. “I don’t make that judgement, and I don’t think anyone else is in a position to do so unless they have a grasp of the recent history that has unfolded between those billions of people.”

Poy said she feels everyone should be able to live freely, but she also feels that the Chinese have the right to broker a new unity, a new openness with the Olympic games. “That spirit of coming together is so important. I feel the Olympic games should remain the Olympic games and that we shouldn’t let this political tension taint it. The athletes have worked so hard to compete- let them have their glory.”

“I agree with that a hundred per cent,” Grant said.

“People have the right to their opinions, to try and make change for the better,” Grant said, but added that the people she met didn’t seem oppressed or depraved, in fact they were happy, ambitious and welcomed her with open arms. “Human rights are important, but by asking us to boycott you’re taking away from our right to compete, and the Olympic games shouldn’t be about that.”

Photos submitted by Kara Grant


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