Hugo Rifkind Hugo Rifkind

Shared Opinion | 22 March 2008

Giving the Olympics to the Chinese was an act of cynical genius: a stick to beat them with

It is probably blasphemy, or sacrilege, or at least very rude, but whenever I see the Dalai Lama, I think of him as speaking in the voice of the late Mike Reid, who played Frank Butcher on EastEnders. It must be the tinted specs. ‘Look, me old China,’ he croaks, pinching at the bridge of his nose, ‘I know you got to look your best right now, what with them Olympics. I ain’t exploiting that. I ain’t orchestrating nuffin’. I’m only a monk, innit? Barry! Tell ’er!’

I’ll be eating my hat on this in a week or two, if the dusty Tibetan streets run red, but for now, hurrah for the Olympics. Suddenly, they aren’t just about reinforcing our stereotypes of east European women, or a dogged global refusal to concede that the Ancient Greeks didn’t have judo or bicycles. Suddenly, they are global macropolitics. China is playing nice. Or, at least, nicer. The Games are a force for good.

Maybe they always were, and I just wasn’t listening. There can be few words in the English language that benefit less from standing shoulder to shoulder than ‘politics’ and ‘sport’. (‘Human’ and ‘cheese’? I’ll keep thinking.) There is a sort of soul-sapping puritanical blandness about anybody who makes the transition from one to the other (Lord Coe, Sir Menzies Campbell) and, when pressed, they always drone on about the wrong bits. It’s all inspiration, going for gold, being a winner, as though they are deliberately churning out slogans for faintly sinister teenage Christians to print on their T-shirts. They never say, ‘Let’s deliberately give the Games to somewhere hateful, repressive and mad, so that they have a stark choice between getting their shit together or being a global laughing stock.’ They should.

Perhaps this was the thinking in 1980, when the Games went to Moscow.

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