'The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians," Avery Brundage, a past president of the International Olympic Committee, once said.
We like to think so, don't we? Yet, the raucous rounds of "snatch the torch" that have disrupted this year's pre-Olympics festivities reveal a deeper truth: The Olympics offer diplomacy by other means.
That's why an unusual political coalition from the left and the right has called on President Bush to join several other major world leaders in skipping the Olympics' opening ceremonies in Beijing. Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also called on Bush to avoid the ceremonies. Last week, John McCain, the presumed Republican nominee for president, joined in.
U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, a conservative Michigan Republican, has introduced a bill that would prevent Bush and other U.S. government officials and employees from attending the Aug. 8 parade.
But Bush has tended to shrug off the idea of mixing politics with the Olympics. "I'm going to the Olympics. I view the Olympics as a sporting event," Bush said in February. "You got the Dalai Lama crowd, you've got global warming folks, you've got Darfur. And I just I am not going to go and use the Olympics as an opportunity to express my opinions to the Chinese people in a public way."
He was referring to pressure from protesters against China's brutal human rights policies in Tibet and elsewhere. They're the folks who stage the protests that have led to scuffles with police and unsmiling Chinese security agents in the 21 cities through which China's pre-Olympic torch relay is running.
Whether you support torch-snatching as a pre-Olympic event or not, this international embarrassment could hardly be aimed at a more deserving target than China. The country's list of offenses against humanity is long: political prisoners, jailed journalists, religious persecution you name it, they do it. On the world scene, they have offered aid, weapons and comfort to a variety of human rights abusers. As Sudan's leading oil customer, they have given passive support to that country's genocidal policies in Darfur.
And as their eager trading partner and debtor, we, the United States, have been among China's leading enablers.
History shows the Olympics to be more than just a "sporting event." Japan in 1964, South Korea in 1988 and the Soviet Union in 1980, among others, have used the Olympics to elevate their stature on the world stage.
The most memorably notorious example is Nazi Germany in 1936. Those were the Games that created the torch relay as an international pageant to help polish the image of Adolf Hitler's murderous regime.
Susan Bachrach, curator of an exhibit on the 1936 Olympics that opens at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington on April 25, observed, that ominously, "the Nazi torch ran through countries that Germany was about to conquer."
Avery Brundage argued vigorously against calls for the United States to boycott the Berlin Olympics. Hitler successfully concealed the deadliest side of his regime, including the racist and anti-Semitic Nuremburg laws and the rounding up of Jews and others for the first of his death camps.
Yet, in the long run, what is most remembered from that Olympics are the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens, the black American track-and-field star who blew holes in Hitler's theories of Aryan supremacy.
It is with that positive memory in mind that I support the call for our president, but not our country's athletes, to boycott China's Olympics. We should give our athletes a chance to compete, as they have been training to do, and maybe present the sort of high-achieving model of achievement to the world that Jesse Owens did.
History shows the greatest value of the Olympic Games is in their ability to rise above ordinary political nationalism to a higher level of human relations: a humanitarian, egalitarian and meritorious ideal of fair play that transcends boundaries of nations, races or tribes.
In ancient times, it is said, nations put down their arms and took a break from war in order to compete in the Olympics. In more recent times, the Olympics encourage us to look beyond our home countries to learn about how much we have in common with the rest of the world and how those commonalities can bridge our differences.
That's why we should support the Olympics and our athletes. Let the politicians stay home.