How do the Olympics figure into the complicated equation? Do the games represent a potentially dangerous flashpoint? Are they an opportunity for dialogue and understanding?
The Olympics are a good thing. The Dalai Lama supported China’s efforts to get the Olympics from the very beginning. He never talked about boycotts, never talked about preconditions. He’s totally pro-China. But the Dalai Lama favors a free country that is an intelligent and responsible actor in the world. As a great nation, China should have the Olympics. But the Dalai Lama believes that great nations tolerate dissent and protest. When the public eye is on China, the government should allow people to express themselves. Nobody is going to freak out. In fact, the world will think China is moderate and mature. Do not pretend that dissent is terrorism. To paint dissenting Tibetans and Chinese as terrorists is foolishness.
On a more sociological note, do you think it is possible to de-contextualize the Olympics, to view them as a pure example of sport?
No, I don’t think so. It’s impossible to de-contextualize. There is always the PR element for the country or for the city doing the Games. The Olympics always will be a magnet for people with grievances. The Palestinians are the only ones who were foolish enough to do terrorism at the Olympics. . . . It’s just a matter of peaceful protest. Governments have been either reasonable of those protests, allowing them, or they have been ridiculous, like the Mexicans shooting people in ’68.
There are sporting questions, such as doping and all. And it is interesting to note that the Chinese have imported coaches such as the East Germans. It does become a national propaganda thing, with the athletes being used as a form of publicity porn.
There were some articles recently about some poor Chinese kayaker who won a medal a couple Olympics ago. Officials won’t let him stop kayaking and they threatened his family. The government will take away their privileges as a star athlete’s family, kick them out of their condo unless he competes again in this one. There is too much using athletes like soldiers. The United States is not immune. But the situation in the US is not as gross as it gets when a whole government makes it almost a military priority to win medals. That violates the spirit of the Games, but not totally. . . . Anything human is flawed, acknowledging those flaws are the first step toward improving them.
From a Buddhist perspective, what value do “pure” sports have?
It is, I suppose, a substitute for war; to have “your” champions “compete” with “their” champions. The Olympics were undoubtedly a way for the city states in ancient Greece to pit heroes against each other without killing. It was a way to avoid the conflict between Hector and Achilles that Homer called the Trojan War. . . . The Greeks didn’t just defeat Hector — they genocided the Trojans. They killed and burned the whole city. War had become so professionalized that it became genocidal. There are parallel things in India and other countries. The idea was to put your warriors into sporting competitions where they would have fights and show superiority over each other without actually having to kill off every member of the other society. Genocide is always counterproductive. Depopulating your neighbor’s land and laying it to waste and wilderness is ultimately self-limiting, self-defeating, because it limits your own opportunities.
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