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I’m not impressed with China. OK, that’s an understatement. It would be nice if we were able to say that the Olympics made things a little bit better. But the folks over at Human Rights Watch don’t think anything has changed. In fact, they argue that hosting the Olympic Games has actually hurt human rights in China. I quote:

“The 2008 Beijing Games have put an end – once and for all – to the notion that these Olympics are a ‘force for good,’” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention, and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression.”

China claimed they would be open to protest during the Olympics, but many accounts reveal that the Chinese government has a very limited idea of what “freedom to protest” really means. Those wishing to protest in the designated protest areas were required to apply for permits from the authorities. The Guardian has revealed that, of the 77 applications made during the games, not one was granted by authorities in Beijing. On top of that, two elderly women who applied for a permit to protest their eviction from their homes were not only denied the permit but also sentenced to a year’s labour in re-education camps.

During the two weeks of the Games Students for a Free Tibet managed to organize eight nonviolent direct actions, drawing significant international attention to their cause. The activists were deported during the closing ceremonies after ten days of “administrative detention.”

Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, stated pre-Olympics that “the Games are going to be a force for good.” It appears that despite many news stories of continuing human rights abuses by the Chinese, the two weeks of competition didn’t change his mind. During Sunday’s official closing ceremonies he called the Games “exceptional”:

“Tonight, we come to the end of 16 glorious days, which we will cherish forever. … Through these games, the world learned more about China, and China learned more about the world,” Rogge said.

Yes, China learned more about the world. They learned, I’m sure, that the world will turn its face away from abuses and atrocities when national glory and world swimming records are at stake. They learned that even British Cabinet Ministers will ask the media to be silent on human rights abuses. They learned that the Olympic Games cannot be politicized, despite everything about nationalism, national teams, committees, scoring controversies and funding for athletes being political. The Olympics are no place for protest, no place for voicing concerns about ongoing human rights abuses in the host country, no place for statements of any kind. Run your races, swim your laps, smile and wave, then get out.

But the Olympics may be the best time for statements to be made. When the world is watching, great things can be achieved. Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ 1968 Power to the People salute has been inspiring nonviolent protest for forty years, overcoming the abuse they received for daring to speak out. As Geoff Smith wrote in The Guardian last month,

The magnetism of that monumental moment continues to captivate and intrigue. For actor and playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, it is “one of the most definitive expressions of manhood, of service” he has ever seen. And this notion of “service” makes Smith and Carlos’s victory stand as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. From Athens to San Francisco, the run-up to this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing has witnessed a series of embarrassing anti-China protests. British Olympic team athletes have refused to sign contracts that include “gagging clauses” that stifle their right to protest.

The world today bears little resemblance to the one occupied by Smith and Carlos four decades ago. But one feature that has not changed is injustice and our sensitivity to it. The time is ripe for the next generation of Smiths and Carloses. But only time will tell whether the current crop possesses the political will to use the Beijing stage to carry the baton.

Sadly, none of the athletes took the opportunity to make a real statement at these Olympics Games. So be it; they had other things on their mind. But we should be grateful for the activists in China and those internationally who refused to be silent over these last months. We should be grateful for those journalists who did write critical stories on the Chinese administration, even though it wasn’t enough. And we should be careful not to turn our gaze away now that the medals have been awarded and the lights have been turned off at Birds Nest Stadium. The fight for justice is only beginning.