Jonathan Zimmerman: Are the Olympic games politicized? Yes.

Roundup: Historians' Take

[The writer is a professor of history and education at New York University.]

Are protesters following the Olympic torch trying to"politicize" the Beijing Games, as Chinese leaders have charged? You bet. And it's a good thing, too.

Remember, the Olympics have always been political. They were in 1936, when Adolf Hitler used the Berlin Games to burnish his international image; in 1968, when two African-American medalists in Mexico City raised their fists in a black-power salute; in 1972, when terrorists murdered 11 Israeli athletes in Munich.

And they were political in 1980, when the United States led a boycott of the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Sixty-two countries joined the 1980 boycott. And one of them was - surprise! - the People's Republic of China.

So it's patently absurd, if not hypocritical, for the Chinese government to bemoan the"politicizing" of this summer's Olympics. The Chinese have their own political goals for the Beijing Games, of course - to showcase their achievements and disguise their misdeeds.

It certainly worked for Hitler, who received an enormous propaganda boost from the 1936 Summer Olympics. Many people still maintain that the Games helped undermine Hitler's doctrine of Aryan race supremacy, because African-  American runner Jesse Owens garnered four gold medals. According to one well-worn myth, Hitler even refused to shake Owens' hand.

The truth is exactly the opposite. To hide Nazi racism from foreign eyes, Hitler ordered German journalists to refrain from criticizing black athletes. He also refused to pare footage of Owens from Leni Riefen- stahl's prize-winning documentary about the Berlin Games, rejecting suggestions that the film was"too positive" toward African-Americans.

Likewise, the Chinese regime must have hoped that the 2008 Games would divert attention from its own crimes. But this time, it's not working. And we should all be happy about that.

Reasonable people can differ about whether Chinese human rights abuses - in Tibet and elsewhere - merit an Olympic boycott, or whether a boycott would help curb these abuses. I don't know myself.

But this I do know: The Chinese government is a cruel dictatorship. It monitors all communication - including, most remarkably, the Internet - for the smallest hints of opposition. It jails dissidents or takes away their jobs, leaving them destitute.

And it has occupied Tibet for a half-century, against the clear wishes of the Tibetans themselves. Anything that focuses international concern upon these brutalities is a positive step for human freedom.

So let's make the Olympics more political, not less so.

This summer, whether you support a boycott or not, raise your voice against Chinese repression. China's rulers won't thank you, that's for sure. But one day, their victims will.

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