No, it wasn’t exactly John Carlos and Tommie Smith atop the medal stand in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics, but for Kobe Bryant that simple gesture caught by a photographer during the Opening Ceremonies in Beijing on Friday morning was about as political as it gets.
From the way it looked it was nothing more than a fleeting moment. Like a trendy, throwaway gesture that all the kids make that really doesn’t mean anything. Oh sure, maybe Kobe Bryant is for peace. Maybe deep down he believes the Chinese government-supported and bankrolled genocide in Darfur is further proof of the decay of society. The thought that human life is worth less than barrels of oil should make Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and every athlete for every nation march into the Olympic Stadium with black-gloved fists in the air.
But to make a gesture that actually had meaning behind it – that actually meant what it stood for – would be a risk for an athlete of Kob Bryant’s stature. After all, Kobe is one of Nike’s top spokesmen in the Beijing Olympics. Since a lot of Nike’s products that are sold in the U.S. are made in China, and because the shoe company has a large stake in the Chinese economy, spokesman Kobe can’t go around making declarations for human rights.
Protest is futile.
Or has Kobe simply been muzzled? Certainly we know the Lower Merion grad has some thoughts on issues like Darfur based on a public service announcement he made earlier this year. Here it is:
But in China, with Team USA, Bryant says he won’t comment on the issue anymore.
“That's where we'll leave it,” he told The Washington Post.” We're going to focus on what we've got to do. We've got enough on our plate to bring back the gold medal. So we let the people that know best about the situation handle that situation and us do what we do.”
Who might that be? Is it Team USA Managing Director Jerry Colangelo, who reportedly addressed the Olympians and told them not to politicize the games, a charge he later denied in the Post story?
“We have empathy for what's happening, be it in Tibet or Darfur, and if our players are asked and their heart tells to say something, that's up to them,” he said. “I know people want quotes from some of these athletes on these issues, but come Aug. 26, I don't think we'll be asking those same questions. It's kind of newsy now. I don't have an issue with that at all.”
Wait… so human rights violations and genocide only matter when it fits into the proper news cycle? Is it me or was there a time when Darfur or Tibet has not been news?
Nevertheless, Coach Mike Krzyzewski says he and Colangelo have encouraged the basketball players to speak on whatever they want, but encouraged politeness toward the Chinese hosts.
“We want to make sure that we're good ambassadors for our country and make sure that we're representing our game here in the Olympics,” Krzyzewski said.
Because representing basketball and Nike is the bottom line, right?
So that’s where Team USA will leave it. Kind of a political don’t-ask, don’t-tell where the most provocative comment came from James.
“I don't want to bring no distractions to our team. My number one goal coming here was not to speak on political issues, it was to come win a gold medal,” James said. “I said if I was asked the question then I would answer, and I'd say that basic human rights should be protected. That's how I feel. It's not going to go further than that. It's not going to go less than that.”
Here’s where the curious part comes in. Though athletes were politicized a generation or two ago and sometimes even risked arrest and the loss of their career to make social and political statements, the latter generations have been defined by its public apathy on issues that do not mesh with capitalism, commerce and bling.
They can cite Michael Jordan as the trail blazer in that regard when he famously failed to famously failed to endorse African-American democratic senatorial candidate Harvey Gantt in his early 1990s race against arch-conservative Jesse Helms in North Carolina, because, as Jordan stated at the time, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Too be fair, Jordan quietly contributed money to Gantt’s campaign and has also been a contributor to Bill Bradley’s and Barack Obama’s run for the White House. Besides, people have the right to shut-up, too.
But the notion that the Olympic Games – of any era – are not political is incredibly naïve. Oh sure, we want it to be about the best athletes from all over the globe representing their country in fair competition, but even that is political. Governing bodies in each country select the athletes, bias and favoritism is bought and sold and then comes the bureaucracies that do the drug testing.
Perhaps the only time the Olympics were pure was when Carlos and Smith raised their fists in the air.
Regardless, the Olympic ideal remains. The idea that pure sport and the best of competition is hard to be cynical about. For that the U.S. has no further to look than the man who carried the flag into the Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies last Friday morning.
Middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong's story certainly has been told and re-told enough since the U.S. athletes voted him to be the flag bearer. In fact, it’s hard to read a sentence about Lomong that doesn’t note that he was a once a “Lost Boy” from Sudan directly affected by the Chinese policy in that country. Torn from his family that hat he believed had been killed by Sudanese rebels when he was six, Lomong spent the next 10 years in a Kenyan refugee camp before being adapted by a family in the U.S.
The rest is the quintessential American Dream.
Yet by selecting Lomong (a member of a group of athletes known asTeam Darfur) to do nothing more than carry the Stars and Stripes into the stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, the U.S. athletes sent an unmistakable message against the Chinese government’s role in the Darfur genocide.
So maybe there was something to Kobe’s peace salute after all.