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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Vacant stadium a response to China's empty promises on Olympics

A few years ago, my son was interviewing for a job in Bakersfield, Calif. "Do you have asthma?" the interviewer asked him. "No," my son answered...

Seattle Times staff columnist

A few years ago, my son was interviewing for a job in Bakersfield, Calif. "Do you have asthma?" the interviewer asked him. "No," my son answered, surprised at the question.

Then, nodding out the window at the soot-filled cloud rolling in from Los Angeles, and thinking about the generally poor quality of air in Bakersfield, my son's soon-to-be boss said, "You will."

Thinking about Beijing and the Olympics, its opening ceremony a mere 132 days away, I think back to that story of my son's interview.

The air quality in Bakersfield is positively alpine compared with Beijing. The Olympic Stadium barely was visible in a photograph run last week in many newspapers.

Quality, in fact, will be a major issue in the march up to these Olympic Games. When China won the Olympic bid in 2001, the government promised to improve the air quality, to improve the quality of life in Tibet, to improve its openness and become less secretive.

Now the promises seem empty.

The Olympics are coming to Beijing, but the air quality is so dangerously poor some athletes are considering wearing masks during their competitions.

Summertime and the breathing's not easy.

But it isn't just the air that is threatening these Games, it's the oppression.

The Olympics are coming, but China is resorting to violence to quell the uprisings in Tibet and refuses to condemn the violence in Sudan.

The Olympics are coming, but last week a dissident was arrested, sentenced to five years in prison and shocked with an electric baton just for carrying a sign that read, "We want human rights, not the Olympics."

The Olympics are coming, but China has decided it won't allow live television shots of Tiananmen Square, just in case protesters choose that very historic spot to air their dissent.

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Make a deal with the devil, or at least a capitalist dictatorship, and this is what you can get.

The opening ceremony is four months away, and the news is all about censorship, repression and death.

The U.S. State Department has even mentioned the possibilities of electronic surveillance of visitors in hotel rooms and offices.

Are you sure that's an olive in your martini glass?

The marathon almost certainly will lose world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie because of the air quality. The opening and closing ceremonies have lost artistic adviser Steven Spielberg because of China's continued Darfur connection.

There are concerns about the level of chemicals in the food, and talk — in Europe at least — of a boycott of the opening ceremony if China continues to refuse to address its human-rights issues.

Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who got this job three days after Beijing was awarded the Games, is taking a wait-and-stick-your-head-in-the-sand approach to China's indifference to the drumbeat of dissent.

"My first priority, my sacred priority," he said last week, "is to make sure the athletes get the good Games they deserve."

Funny how the IOC had no trouble running roughshod over Atlanta, turning the town into "Commercialville." And it had no problem repeatedly criticizing Athens, when the completion of some of its stadiums and arenas was falling far behind schedule.

But Beijing? Shhhhhh!

The IOC not only has a right to expect China to open up its society, but it also has a duty to demand it. The hope for openness was one of the reasons Beijing got the Games.

Since the IOC is mum, the world needs to speak as firmly, if not as decisively, as Spielberg.

President Jimmy Carter's decision to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan was a drastic mistake. It stole a once-in-a-lifetime chance for many athletes who had sacrificed so much for that summer.

And, when the Communist bloc returned the favor, boycotting the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, it dramatically diminished the glitter of those gold medals.

Boycotting the Olympics doesn't work.

But boycotting the opening ceremony, if China doesn't make a concerted effort to clean up its act and its air between now and Aug. 8, is an excellent idea.

The opening ceremony is a celebration of the cultures of the host countries. A boycott would shine a light on the problems of this host country.

China is the most populous nation in the world and, with the bright lights shining on it, its athletes are peaking to give their best performances of their lives in these Olympics.

Wouldn't it be great if the Chinese government was doing the same?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. Check out Rough Cut, his weekly vodcast, at www.seattletimes.com/sports

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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