Unfair or not, the Olympics have never been simply about sports. Just ask any member of the 1980 U.S. team whose lifelong Olympic dream died when President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And the 2008 Games in Beijing promise to be one of the most politically charged Olympiads in modern times, offering a unique platform for protest groups seeking to highlight issues ranging from the host country's crackdown in Tibet and its economic ties with the Sudanese government responsible for the atrocities in Darfur to its domestic political repression. Already, demonstrators have disrupted the Olympic torch relay in Paris, San Francisco and other stops, sparking nationalist outrage on the streets of China. As August's opening ceremonies draw closer, athletes heading for Beijing are increasingly aware that they're heading into a season of political controversy particularly since many of those mounting the protests are demanding that athletes take political stands on their issues.
The early returns suggest that America's best are unlikely to heed the protesters' calls. At the U.S. Olympic Committee's biennial pre-Games media summit in April, swimmer Michael Phelps, Team USA's most visible and celebrated Olympian, was asked if he felt any responsibility to speak out against injustice. He answered with a rambling evasion. Others offered direct, though disappointing, replies. "That's a lot of responsibility, to ask an athlete to not only represent your country and perform and try to win a gold meal, and to have a political view," said U.S. women's soccer star Abby Wambach. "Politicians should be dealing with this stuff, not the athletes," added Paul Hamm, who will defend his all-around-gymnastics gold medal in Beijing. With a few exceptions, most U.S. athletes offered the same spin: We're going for the gold, leave politics alone.
The arguments for staying on the sideline have some merit. First, the controversies surrounding China are complicated: Is it reasonable to expect a teen gymnast, who has spent a lifetime hitting the pommel horse much harder than the books, to be conversant on the geo-political consequences of China's Sudan policy? "Some of the athletes are caught," says U.S. wrestler Patricia Miranda, a Yale Law School graduate and one of the rare athletes to voice opposition to China's human rights record. "They might for the first time be hearing about this stuff. They don't have a reference point."
Second, making it onto an Olympic team, and pursuing success at the Games, drains the mind and body like no other task on the planet. These young men and women are perfecting races decided by milliseconds, or routines where a tiny hitch can mean the difference between gold with its millions in potential endorsement dollars and heading back to that job at Home Depot. Every distraction makes a difference; they can't afford to muddle their minds. "The athletes are doing the right thing, as far as focusing on sport," says USA Gymnastics executive Ron Galimore, a 1980 Olympian. "They have a small window. It's not that they don't care. It just takes so much focus, so much energy to make an Olympic Games. Their heads are in the right place."
Fair enough. But is it really too much to ask athletes to make an effort to become informed, or to form an opinion on the controversies that will inevitably envelope the Beijing Games? "It seems like such an obvious answer to me," says Miranda. "Being part of the conversation doesn't cost a whole lot." Olympic athletes do have some spare time for a little reading, you know. "All young individuals should be aware of the situation, the circumstances in which they are becoming involved in," says John Carlos, the 1968 Olympic bronze-medalist whose Black Power salute on the podium set the standard for mixing sports and social justice. "It's something they have to study, and become well-versed in. It's an obligation."
U.S. softball player Jessica Mendoza is another exception to athletic silence. "My goal is to create a conversation," says Mendoza, also the incoming president of the Women's Sports Foundation. She embraces the questions about China, and is particularly passionate about Darfur. "I'm willing to talk about it while most athletes aren't." Mendoza is extremely careful to avoid criticizing other athletes who shy away, citing the added pressure that activism brings. But as more athletes are asked about China, she says, "the last I would ever want any athlete to do is to say they don't know."
It's presumptuous to expect all Olympic athletes to follow in Carlos's footsteps, to whip out the Tibetan flag on the stand if they're lucky enough to get there. Or to model themselves after Joey Cheek, the U.S. speedskater who donated the $25,000 prize from his '06 gold medal to a project that aids Darfur refugees in Chad. (Cheek went on to co-found Team Darfur, a coalition of worldwide athletes committed to raising visibility for the situation in the Sudan. The group is quite light on big-name American summer Olympians.)
But what's the harm in Americans athletes at least speaking up, if not speaking out? The International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, and Olympic sponsors have all insisted that they won't quell free speech in the run-up to the Olympics. So if most American athletes are shying away from the issues, it either appears that these institutions are gagging them, or that they're not making at least an attempt to get informed. Either scenario is a shame. Why shouldn't the American team leave the "we're just athletes" excuse at home? Why not embrace the opportunity to show that Team USA offers a little more than just gold medalists?
"Athletes have a responsibility, as human beings and citizens, to step up to the plate and participate in the world," says Tukufu Zuberi, director of the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who has studied China's connections with the Sudan. "They can't hide because they're exceptional individuals. Because they're exceptional individuals, more is demanded of them." On the field, athletes know all about the importance of a stance. Ignoring it off the field hurts too.