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Athletes' dreams teeter amid Olympic protests

CHICAGO — A torch is doused in Paris and, across the world, dreams grow darker.

Yes, it is happening again. Perhaps inevitably and possibly irretrievably. Another Olympic Games is about to be held hostage by the politics of discord.

Once, it was a Nazi regime. A generation later, it was the invasion of Afghanistan. And, today, it is the question of human rights in China. The details and locales are forever changing, but one thing has remained constant through every boycott, protest and uprising.

The athlete is caught in the middle.

For the protesters, it is a cause. For the government, it is an aggravation. For the men and women who spent a lifetime planning for this moment, it can be heartrending.

I mean, how does an athlete respond? If you disagree with those disrupting the Olympic torch relay, does that mean you support crackdowns in Tibet? If you refuse to speak out as a political activist, does that mean you do not care about genocide in Darfur? For some athletes, it is the one game they can not win.

"There are things going on throughout the world that I cry over, and pray for," said Sheila Taormina, a three-time Olympian in swimming and triathlon. "But as an athlete, the Olympic Games are about the world coming together, putting aside all of our differences for two weeks. We come together and we're at peace and on a fair playing ground for those two weeks. For me, the Olympics is not a platform."

For others, it is the ultimate platform. China began lobbying for the Olympics years ago as a way to show off the growth of a nation. Just as today's protesters are using the Games to illuminate China's dark side.

The reality is this story is not going away. In the months to come, it is difficult to see the Chinese government acquiescing or the political activists growing quieter.

"When politics and Olympics interact, it hasn't proven to be a very good mix," said Jerry Caraccioli, who co-wrote the upcoming book BOYCOTT: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games with his brother Tom. "The people who are most affected are the athletes who had nothing to do with any of the problems."

The impact already is being felt. Even in this opulent ballroom of a turn-of-the-century hotel, there is talk of atrocities and demonstrations. Even in this place, on the opening day of the U.S. Olympic team media summit, there are plenty of athletes ducking questions.

And a few more wondering about their own roles in the political process.

Patricia Miranda, a Yale law school graduate, volunteered in 2007 to work for Human Rights In China (HRIC), an international organization designed to promote individual freedom in China.

Now, in 2008, she is preparing to travel to China as a member of the U.S. wrestling team. And she is debating how far she is willing to go for the sake of her political views.

She talks of the black power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games and wonders whether the time is right for athletes to again become political.

"In 1968, it was the right use of the opportunity and the climate and the stage. That became an important moment in time," Miranda said. "And even though the (International Olympic Committee) sent them packing, it was the right thing to do. I'm not sure that this is the same situation.

"I'm going to seriously think about what would be the right thing to do, if the opportunity does come around."

For many Olympians, the issue is not right and wrong. It is about timing and impact.

Softball player Jessica Mendoza traveled to Afghanistan last year and is now rallying support for an Olympians' trip to Darfur next year.

Yet Mendoza is careful not to cross certain lines when talking about the role of China's government in Darfur and Tibet. She has teammates to think about, she said. And she has too much respect for the Olympic ideals to disrupt the Games with an overt protest.

"When they tried to extinguish the Olympic flame and portrayed the Olympic rings as handcuffs, it really hurt me," Mendoza said. "The Olympic spirit is so much more than China, it's so much more than any political movements. It's one thing to hold a sign that says 'Free Tibet' and it's a whole other thing to extinguish the tradition of the Olympic flame."

For many athletes, the 2008 Summer Games will be the culmination of a lifetime of work. There is not likely to be a million-dollar payday if all goes well. And there may not be a next time if things go wrong.

This is their moment, and they are worried about it passing them by. Just as the 1980 Olympians have forever lived with the idea that their careers were used as a political ploy.

"The overriding theme with all those '80 Olympians was disappointment," said Tom Caraccioli, whose book comes out May 1. "Not all of them felt the boycott was necessarily a bad thing when it was happening, but they look back and say what a bummer it didn't create what the Carter administration was hoping for. For most of them, they are still confused to this day. They don't know why it had to happen."

>>Fast facts

Olympics

2008 Summer Games

Aug. 8-24, Beijing

Athletes' dreams teeter amid Olympic protests 04/14/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 8:48pm]
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