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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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The totalitarian Olympics
It's hard to be upbeat about the games in China

I would be a lot more excited about the summer Olympics if the host country weren't fielding teams of athletes who are essentially forced laborers. Talk about taking the fun out of sports.

Yang Wenjun, a gold medalist in flatwater canoeing, told The New York Times recently that he longs to quit, but can't. The Chinese government refused to let him retire after he won his gold medal in 2004, threatening to cut off the income he and his poor, rice-farming parents live on. Yang's situation is typical.

The system of government-run Chinese sports schools takes children as young as 6 years old from their parents and trains them in their chosen sports, forgoing regular education. Stars are pushed to compete through injury, denied rest and medical care, and put through a grueling training regimen.

"Every time I think about him training, I feel so sad that my heart hurts," Yang's mother told the Times. "For him, and for me, there is so much pain."

Another gold medalist, 10-meter platform diver Hu Jia, is training for the Beijing Olympics despite a detached retina that threatens to blind him. Hu's father, like Yang's mother, hasn't seen his son more than once or twice a year since he was a little boy. He says if he'd known what his son's life would be like, he'd have never let him compete.

Parents of Olympic champions filled with anguish and remorse over their children's lives don't make for the heartwarming "up close and personal" stories favored by the games' corporate sponsors. In fact, the whole totalitarian-country-in-the-spotlight theme is a bit of a buzz kill.

I can't think about the Beijing Olympics without wondering what has happened to the parents who lost their children in the recent earthquakes. Many were visited by the police and threatened with arrest if they continued protesting the shoddy school construction that led to their children's deaths. Human rights activist Huang Qi, who was trying to help the parents get answers, was arrested and stuffed in a car by plainclothes officers. His family was told he was being held on suspicion of possessing "state secrets."

And then, of course, there is the crackdown in Tibet, precipitated by the Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese are so jittery about the Olympics they have shut down polluting factories, throwing thousands of workers out on the street, in an abrupt effort to improve air quality. Beijing has even devised a plan to shoot down storm clouds that threaten rain in August. Talk about a controlling government.

Even when the games are held in a less repressive environment, there's a lot to dislike about the nationalistic, commercialized spectacle of the Olympics.

But if you love track, as I do, or are moved by other individual athletic endeavors that don't get the mass attention of team sports like baseball and football, the Olympics offers a rare opportunity to watch these sports on network TV.

Plus, it's fun to see local talent on the international stage. Former Madison East High School star Gabe Jennings led the best runners in the world for nearly all of the final of the men's 1,500 during the recent Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., before he dropped back, missing the qualifying standard. It was thrilling when Gabe went to the 2004 Olympics. My family, who know him as a great guy with lots of heart, cheered him on in our living room.

But holding the games in China magnifies everything that is wrong with Olympic sports: the triumph of money, power and nationalism over amateurism, sportsmanship and international understanding.

If anything good comes out of the Beijing Olympics, it will be that the rest of the world will join the repressed activists, parents and athletes of China in revolting against a regime that has no respect for human rights.

Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive.

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