Oof, this one hurts. The Olympics begin tonight (the Opening Ceremony has actually already taken place; it’ll be broadcast in primetime in North America tonight), and at least one friend has already declared his own personal boycott on them. And it’s easy to understand why: Tibet. Darfur. Free speech. Religion. Cyberspace. (And, yes, since I live in the US, I get to put my head in my hands when President Bush wags his finger at the Chinese over human rights issues.) What part do politics play in an Olympic Games? What if the athletes want to speak out? What if they don’t want to? Do these Games open China up to the rest of the world or grant tacit approval to their problems? How much worse does this question become when Team Darfur co-founder Joey Cheek–wonderful, compassionate, heroic Joey Cheek–has his visa to travel to these Olympics revoked?
I don’t have answers to any of this, and I’m not convinced my desire to watch the Olympics isn’t just pure selfishness instead of a nuanced political approach. But for a brief moment during the Opening Ceremony tonight (7:30 EDT on NBC; Canadians already got it live but can see an encore tonight), the stars will align to make the choice easy. When the United States’ team marches into the Bird’s Nest, they’ll be led by 1500m runner Lopez Lomong. Lomong is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, taken from his parents and trained to be a soldier at the age of six. He spent ten years in a Kenyan refugee camp before coming to America and being adopted by a New York family. After qualifying for the Olympics, he put his name forward to be the flagbearer not necessarily because he expected to be chosen, but because he was so tickled at getting to participate in any kind of democratic process. He’s able to run in these Olympics because he became a US citizen in 2007, shortly before visiting his own grave in Sudan and being reunited with the family who thought him long dead. Team Darfur, indeed.
I imagine NBC, generally incapable of passing up a tear-jerking or sun-dappled Olympic biography, might note this as Lomong carries the American flag into a stadium in Beijing. This time, they’ll be right.