It stands to reason that China, spending a staggering $40 billion to stage the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, wants to use the international spotlight to show how it is quickly becoming a strong, modern and sophisticated player on the world stage.
But activist groups from virtually everywhere also want a piece of that spotlight to remind the world what they think China is doing wrong – especially on issues related to civil rights, free speech, religion, its annexation of Tibet and its controversial oil trade with Sudan.
But truth be told, the prospect of demonstrating during the Olympics is nothing new. Politics, controversy and even tragedy, history shows, have often punctuated the Games regardless of the host.
History of controversy
In 1968, as Mexico City prepared to start the games, a student uprising and military crackdown resulted in the deaths of up to 300 people when troops opened fire on demonstrators. And when the Games started, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made more headlines when they raised their hands in a Black power salute as the U.S. national anthem played during their medal ceremony.
There were charges of financial mismanagement surrounding the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, boycotts during the 1980 games, and Salt Lake City bid officials were accused of bribing Olympic officials to win the 2002 Winter Games.
Then, in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, one person was killed in the Olympic park bombing, to which anti-abortion extremist Eric Rudolph later confessed, citing political motives.
China says it is taking strong, but undisclosed, measures to address security threats. And in this Communist country, the government could enforce some public gathering laws here to discourage demonstrations. So how will activists get their message out at these Games?
Protests starting already
Already, Internet campaigns criticizing China's human rights are beginning to spam out across the Web, some pledging to ramp up for the Games.
A group of Tibetan exiles is planning a Free Tibet demonstration march from Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama resides, into Tibet.
Some groups like actress Mia Farrow's Dream For Darfur, an awareness outfit that tries to rally action against the ethnic killings in Sudan's Darfur region, are now turning their sights on China and the Olympics' corporate sponsors – including NBC's parent company General Electric – because of China's heavy investment in the Sudanese oil industry.
It would not be surprising that many Olympic sponsors who are spending tens of millions of dollars for a positive association with the Games are not looking to add politics and criticism into the mix – especially against this host country, which is home to 1.3 billion consumers.
The 'Genocide Olympics'?
But the messages of some of the activist groups may be delivered in a way so extreme that corporations – and even some ordinary folks – may not feel comfortable aligning with them, no matter how legitimate the cause.
The message is that China's purchase of oil from Sudan is contributing to genocide there. The group extends responsibility for Darfur's atrocities to Olympic corporate sponsors who would presumably profit from their sponsorship of the Games. The group even blasts producer Stephen Spielberg for helping, in their words, "to sanitize Beijing's image" after he agreed to help craft the opening ceremony.
What can't be forgotten is that many of these groups have worthy causes and are frustrated, even desperate for change – which can inspire drastic rhetoric and dramatic photo opportunities. That can make great pictures and can generate publicity for the evening news – but it remains an open question as to whether the method will achieve change, which is the stated goal.
Three things are certain. First, China seldom bows to outside pressure. Second, corporations these days would rather talk of going green than of genocide. Finally, the principal Web sites selling Olympic tickets have already crashed at least once from the extraordinary demand and interest surrounding these Games.
Taken together, all of that means the greatest sport spectators may see this Olympics may be activists working to find a new and more effective way of getting their message through while a stronger, more sophisticated and popular China strenuously defends itself.