By David Bond
Last Updated: 1:21am BST 26/04/2007
The Olympic movement found itself at the centre of a new storm over China’s human rights record yesterday as officials from Beijing 2008 and the International Olympic Committee faced fresh accusations of endorsing the country’s controversial policies, this time over the civil war in Sudan.
In what must be one of the more bizarre stories to hit the image of the Games, IOC president Jacques Rogge was forced to field awkward questions over the Chinese government’s continued support for the Sudanese government despite the 2004 atrocities in Darfur.
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The issue came to a head last week after the Hollywood actress turned political activist, Mia Farrow, - a United Nations goodwill ambassador - began a campaign to put pressure on the IOC over Darfur by labelling the Beijing Olympics the “genocide Games”.
She targeted Steven Spielberg, the director of blockbuster movies such as ET and Jaws, who is working as an artistic adviser to China for the Games, warning him that he risked becoming the “Leni Riefenstahl of the Beijing Games”, a reference to the German film-maker who made a propaganda film for Hitler on the 1936 Olympics.
He responded by writing earlier this month to Chinese president Hu Juntao, condemning the killings and asking the Beijing government to use its influence in Sudan to persuade them to allow access to a UN peacekeeping force.
The Chinese have huge oil interests in Sudan and supply arms to the African state, where 200,000 people have died and a further 2.5 million have been displaced during the violence.
But, in a sudden shift two weeks ago, the Chinese government sent a senior official, Zhai Jun, to Darfur for a tour of refugee camps and to press the Sudan government into backing down over their refusal to admit the UN force.
The Chinese deny that the Olympics, Farrow or Spielberg had anything to do with the move, but the issue has again highlighted the sensitivities the IOC and Beijing continue to face over the subject of human rights.
More controversy is expected later today when Beijing organisers announce the route for the 2008 torch relay. There are plans for the torch to pass through Taiwan and Tibet on its way to the Chinese capital.
But China’s refusal to accept their claims for independence has led to threats of boycotts and protests. Yesterday four American citizens were detained by Chinese officials at the base of Mount Everest, which is expected to feature in the relay, for unfurling “free Tibet” banners.
Rogge ducked the Darfur question yesterday but, on a more general note, said that he hoped the Games would eventually be a “force for good” in China.
He added: “We believe the Olympic Games will have a positive and lasting effect on Chinese society and that has been recognised by Chinese leaders.”
Hein Verbruggen, chairman of the IOC’s co-ordination commission for the Beijing Games, was slightly more forthcoming on the troublesome debate.
“The IOC has always taken the position with political crises [like Darfur] that they should be discussed at the United Nations,” he said.
"We are not in a position to give instructions to governments as to how they behave. I don’t want to be dragged into discussions that are highly politically sensitive. We can only hope the problems are solved.
“We are going to have more of these protests, we know that. But would any political situation be better had the Games not come to China? Definitely not.”
Asked whether he agreed that the Chinese government’s recent intervention in Sudan was a positive move, Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing organising committee, replied: "Of course it is a good thing.
"The Games is helping to open up the country and is a way of showcasing China and creating a better understanding between the Chinese people and the rest of the world.
“The human rights issue exists in all countries to varying degrees. China is a developing country and we are doing our best.”
On that score, new regulations to allow greater freedom of movement for foreign journalists working in China, introduced on Jan 1, do seem to be working.
But there are still concerns over the way Beijing residents have been moved out of their homes to clear sites for Olympic-related development. Around 300,000 are estimated to have been relocated.
Beijing are also facing difficult questions over traffic and air pollution, a problem highlighted by last week’s IOC inspection.
But there are no worries over the speed with which Beijing are delivering on their promise to construct or refurbish 31 Olympic venues or the redevelopment of the city’s road and metro network, a project set to cost a staggering £20 billion.
The magnificent 91,000-seater “bird’s nest” stadium, the centrepiece of the new Olympic Green complex which, at 1135 hectares is double the size of London’s Olympic Park site in Stratford, will be ready next March.