Commentary

World peace? The answer isn't the Olympics

Updated: August 16, 2008, 8:53 AM ET
By Jeremy Schaap | Special to ESPN.com

BEIJING -- No one wants to hear you complain when you're at the Olympics. Still …

If the Olympics are supposed to be about bringing people together from all over the globe, why award them to a nation that makes crossing into it as difficult as possible?

[+] EnlargeHu Jintao
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty ImagesChinese president Hu Jintao and his country showcased a dazzling Opening Ceremony, but does that make us forget China's human-rights record?

If the Olympics are supposed to be about giving Olympians the best chance to excel, why schedule them in brutal mid-summer heat and humidity? Why stage them in a city in which breathing can be hazardous to your health?

If the Olympics are supposed to be about the indomitability of the human spirit and the exercise of free will, why choose a host nation in which freedom of speech is limited and one party rules unchallenged and with impunity?

If the hope was that by awarding the Games to Beijing, human rights here would be expanded, the Chinese government has a simple message: Ha!

Let's be clear, the International Olympic Committee is not now, and has never been, an agent for liberal democracy and human rights. Which is fine. What's not fine is that it continues to present itself as a humanitarian organization. It is not. It is a business. The hypocrisy rankles. The NBA does not pretend to be anything but a business, and neither does the Premier League, or the ATP, or Major League Baseball. Yes, all these organizations -- including the IOC -- have their designated charities and do good deeds, but they don't suggest to anyone that their primary goal is anything other than making money. The IOC does.

Don't get me wrong. I truly love the Olympics. I respect the competitors, from the high-profile swimmers and sprinters to the obscure equestrians and race-walkers. Just please spare me all the high-minded hooey about sport uniting humanity. There is an element of that at the Olympics, to be sure; but there are just as many examples of sport reinforcing the great cultural divides.

For example:

Just a few days ago, an Iranian swimmer, faced with the prospect of swimming against -- and possibly losing to -- an Israeli, instead decided to drop out of the Games. (The IOC says the Iranian was ill. This explanation, like so much of what we hear from the IOC these days, strains credulity. In 2004, an Iranian judoka pulled the same stunt, refusing to compete against an Israeli, but at least he had the courage to be honest, explaining that he wished to show solidarity with Palestinians.)

The Miracle on Ice was perhaps the most stirring upset ever; it's certainly my favorite. I defy anyone to explain to me how it helped U.S-Soviet relations or eased Cold War tensions.

Meanwhile, the reciprocal boycotts of 1980 and 1984 demonstrated the depth of the East-West chasm. Those Olympics were victims of politics; they certainly didn't bring the world together. And neither did the 1956 Melbourne Games, which were defined by Soviet-Hungarian enmity, or Munich 1972, the Massacre Games, or Berlin 1936, Hitler's Games. The point is, the Olympics don't drive the global agenda, whatever it may be; the global situation drives the Olympics.

Do the athletes occasionally get emotional when they are standing on the medals podium listening to their national anthems? Of course. They also tend to get emotional when someone hands them the Stanley Cup, or the Vince Lombardi Trophy, or a fat paycheck after winning The Masters.

In other words, the Olympics are a great spectacle of sport, but don't expect to find in their athletes' oaths and elaborate ceremonies any keys to world peace.

My father, Dick Schaap, who wrote five books about the Olympics and Olympians, might have put it best. "The Olympic Games are a gift to modern civilization, a gift from the Greeks," he wrote, "and that is fair warning."

Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is the substitute host of "Outside The Lines" and "The Sports Reporters." He is also a frequent contributor to ABC's "World News Tonight" and "Nightline."

Jeremy Schaap

SportsCenter Reporter/Host, Classic Sports Reporters
Jeremy Schaap is an ESPN anchor and national correspondent, based in New York since 1998. He is a New York Times best-selling author ("Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History") and a contributor to "ABC World News Tonight" and "Nightline."