The Olympic torch relay has become a convenient news hook in recent weeks, much to the delight of groups who are dissatisfied with various aspects of Chinese rule. As the flame traveled through London, Paris, San Francisco, Karachi and New Delhi, protesters in those cities were ready for their moment in the media spotlight.
The grab for the media spotlight began with the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece. Three members of media-rights group Reporters Without Borders shouted “Freedom!”, tried to grab the microphone from the Beijing Olympics organizing committee’s chief as he made a speech, and unfurled a banner that said, “Boycott the country that tramples on human rights.”
Since then, the Tibetan cause has dominated Olympic protesting news. This is hardly surprising given the torch-lighting happened on March 24, just days after rioting and fires broke out in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city.
Being center of the media circus is great for the Tibetan cause, but what about the other groups that had been using the Olympics as leverage against the Chinese government? Most prominent of those were the Darfur activists, who had scored some victories before Tibet stole the limelight.
“While the Dream for Darfur campaign certainly expresses solidarity with the people of Tibet … Our focus is on the unsurpassably urgent task of improving security for civilians and humanitarians in Darfur,” said Eric Reeves, a Smith College professor who helped start the Dream for Darfur campaign, when asked for his response to the current situation.
He said that the urgency was because Sudan’s rainy season, traditionally a period that has caused food shortages among the population there, was nearing.
As the games draw closer, will activist groups jostle more intensely for media attention? The torch relay-Tibet conflation appears to have pushed the Darfur-Olympics grouping out of the news cycle for now.
This raises the question of whether some causes are more worthy of our attention than others. All but the most rigidly utilitarian among us would surely have difficulty weighing allegations of genocide against claims of colonization, for example. Smith’s remark about Sudan’s rainy season bearing down on a hungry populace, for instance, also forces us to ask if some causes deserve to be addressed before others.
The various activist groups that have converged on the Olympics have confronted us with some uncomfortable questions. All of them lay claim to some moral high ground, but which of them do we pay attention to?
Will it simply boil down to which group is able to stage the most media-savvy protest? Or will it be a calculation of how much blood has been spilt for each cause, or is there some other formula? If so, it would be an unfortunate situation for a sporting event that’s supposed to be about humanity’s virtues, rather than a desire for exciting news.