Giving bad states good media coverage

Reading over Dennis Rodman’s latest visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it is interesting to see just the latest iteration of a very old debate. Are such cultural trips and events a good way to help open up otherwise very closed societies, or do they give a dictatorial regime free publicity? Or is it both, and is that a good or bad thing?

With the 2008 Summer Olympics there was a great bit of debate- China was using it as a venue to show of their might, but at the same time they were able to stifle reporting and discussion about their terrible human rights record. I boycotted the games in solidarity with Reporters Without Borders, and agreed that giving so much adoring coverage to a regime that kills journalists when they don’t have nice things to say feels fundamentally wrong. The upcoming Sochi Olympics will have a similar debate- while Russia’s anti-gay laws have been attracting the most attention, the country has an atrocious record of independent journalists being assaulted, bombed, or killed (at least 56 since the end of the Soviet Union). The World Cup planned in Qatar has its own issues, which I documented recently.

But in order to break through barriers that isolate countries from the rest of the world, don’t you have to at the same time give them some publicity? If there was a blanket travel ban to North Korea, or Eritrea, or any other insular state, would things get better?

Granted, the mechanics of Rodman in the hermit kingdom and major sporting events is different. Private citizens taking a camera crew and some basketball players to a totalitarian state is a lot different from an international panel awarding a country the right to host an event. But they both have their ethnical quandaries, and it’s all rooted in what is a reward, what is an incentive, and what constitutes punishment.

Complicit in exploitation: labor standards in the Gulf and the West


If you remember back a decade ago, there was quite a lot of discussion about the idea that awarding the Olympics to Beijing was perhaps unwise. These huge global events- in particular the World Cup and the Summer Olympics- give a country ample opportunity to sell a particular version of their country. China got to show the sheer size and effort they put into the Games, while omitting anything about their treatment of journalists, religious minorities, and pro-democracy protesters.

This is an old argument, but the slate of hosts in the next decade- Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics, then the 2018 World Cup, then Qatar for the 2022 World Cup- brings the debate to the forefront again. The anti-gay measures enacted by Russia have made Western liberal democracies furious, and the power they wield over journalists in the country during the Games is considerable- in 2008 quite a few topics were simply off the table by contract. Host countries are in many cases above criticism.

Qatar is only a couple years into its long path to 2022, but the whole process has been ignominious. The World Cup selection process has been bogged down by charges of corruption going back decades , and the tiny, incredibly wealthy petro-state getting the nod is, to put it lightly, deeply suspicious. The list of various complaints about Qatar is long and substantial. Now the focus is on the labor conditions in the Gulf state. A union official states:

“Young healthy men are being worked to death in Qatar. Scores are dying from heat exhaustion and dehydration after 12-hour shifts in blazing heat, often during the night in the squalid and cramped labour camps with no ventilation and appalling hygiene.”

Appalling guest worker conditions should not be new to informed individuals- they have been reported on for years now. It’s the dark side of the majesty- all these spectacular buildings in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar are created by hundreds of thousands of foreign workers who are mistreated and forbidden to leave the country without permission. Some may say the term ‘slavery’ is excessive, but it is certainly feudal.

The European Parliament has passed a resolution condemning the labor standards, and will be sending a delegation there shortly. The workers under the same system in neighboring countries should not be ignored. To varying degrees Europe, the United States and East Asia are complicit in these labor conditions. Just like our demand for cheap shirts was one reason for the horrible factory collapses in Bangladesh, companies in Western countries helped finance these huge construction projects. And FIFA, which has its nexus of power in Europe, decided to give Qatar the biggest tournament on Earth.

In the end, though, isn’t it just about what country can put on the best show? Labor conditions, human rights…it’s either irrelevant to the showcase, or far more important. Depends what you value, and when and where you value it.

One square meter of God’s earth

Yesterday I finished the superb documentary Saluteabout the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in protest of racism, and in solidarity with all black people. Their story is well known- the Olympic establishment reviled them, they were pushed out of the sport, and some purists maintain that by bringing politics into the games they tainted the incredible 200m times that they ran. Their image has been rehabilitated over time, especially as the Civil Rights movement became championed by a larger and larger segment of the American population.

The director, Matt Norman, focuses plenty of attention on the events surrounding the salute, such as the planned boycott by the black athletes, the Tlatelolco massacre that happened just before the games, and the controversial conduct of International Olympic Committee President Avery Brudage.

From left: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos

However, he has another agenda that he weaves in, and gives the documentary some of its most powerful moments. Matt is the nephew of Peter Norman, the white man sitting on the silver medal stand. Having seen this photo, one of those essential and iconic photos that defines the 1960s and the 20th century as a whole, the unanswered questions abound how did he fit into this? Did he know what they were going to do? Was he angry for being overshadowed?

The documentary draws power from two sources. The first is Peter Norman’s recollections, told in a measured Australian accent that give him a sense of presence that many sports documentary subjects lack. The second source is Smith and Carlos digging into the sense of duty and pride they still feel for having never backed down from their statement. All three have grown old and grey (Norman died in 2006, shortly after the documentary was filmed), but when they are together around a table there are fireworks.

Australia in the 1960s had a system of racial separation that would have gotten a huge amount of global scorn had it not been overshadowed by apartheid South Africa. The indigenous people were denied education and work, and most notably the Stolen Generations; Aborigine children were taken from their parents and placed in white-run schools where their original culture was suppressed. At the time of the games, this was still a common phenomenon.

Norman did not buy into the racial supremacy at all. Born into a devoutly Christian family with a history of service in the Salvation Army, he was taught that all people are created equal, regardless of their race. Thus when Carlos and Smith approached him about their plan, Norman not only endorsed it but asked to participate. In the picture all three men wear the white buttons of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a black-led organization dedicated to fighting oppression and racism.

While the discrimination against the two Americans is well-known, Norman’s secondary participation in the salute (and his later criticism of the White Australia policy) led to him being erased from Australian sporting history. Despite running a qualifying time for the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Australian Olympic Committee did not take him. In fact, by doing so they for the first time had no sprinters in the games, which in retrospective is somewhat of an embarrassment. Despite claims that all living Australian Olympians would be at the 2000 Sydney Games, he was not invited. His invite came from a country where he is far more respected:

As soon as the U.S. delegation discovered that Norman wasn’t going to attend, the United States Olympic Committee arranged to fly him to Sydney to be part of their delegation. He was invited to the birthday party of 200 and 400-meter runner Michael Johnson, where he was to be the guest of honor. Johnson took his hand, hugged him and declared that Norman was one of his biggest heroes. (source)

As one of the interviewed athletes recalled, Norman did not even need to introduce himself. Johnson knew who he was- not only for his solidarity with the American black community, but because his fantastic 200m run is one of the greatest in history. His time of 20.06 seconds is forty-five years later still the Australian record, and would have won gold at Sydney. The appreciation of Norman as a national hero will likely never come, but last year he was given a posthumous apology- though as an editorial bitterly points out, it came from the political establishment rather than the national Olympic authorities.

The title of this post comes from a statement made by Norman about the experience of being on the podium. Each medalist is given about a square meter of God’s earth, he says, and what he chooses to do with it is their right. They have earned it.

Norman’s last appearance with Carlos and Smith (who he’d become close friends with since the games, with Carlos even calling him his brother) was at the dedication of a massive statute of the salute on the grounds of San Jose State University, which both attended. It is part of the wave of appreciation for how brave the salute was, and how iconic it has become. For both of them, they got their monument.

It’s time for Norman to get his own.