Pietro Mennea on Beijing

April 15, 2008 at 3:45 PM EDT

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The debate over a Beijing Olympic boycott boiled over in Italy, as a former Olympic champion and the country’s member of the International Olympic Committee squared off at a sport management seminar in Milan last week.

Pietro Mennea, an Italian athletics star, knows all about boycotts. He competed at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow - and won the gold medal in the 200-metre event - the year of the great American boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Il Giorno newspaper reported that Mennea said he would not boycott the Beijing Olympics, but he wouldn’t have awarded the Games to Beijing in the first place. An athlete boycott would work only if it included trading and diplomatic policies as well, he said.

Ottavio Cinquanta, an Italian IOC member who is also the president of the International Skating Union, agreed on one point, saying he was against boycotting “because it is useless.

“Besides, I would like to tell [French president Nikolas] Sarkozy: ‘Listen, if you do not come to Beijing, surely I will not cry, but in your opinion [would] the strongest exporter of French perfumes stop trading with China to boycott the Olympic Games?’’

Specifically to Mennea, he said it would be better if the former world record holder shut up, because “one who says he would not award the Games to China is the one who won in Moscow.

“Mennea is an intelligent person, very successful also at university, but his declaration…is not worthy of a man who lived the sport,’’ Cinquanta said, according to the newspaper.

Ironically, Mennea, who had received his doctorate in political science two weeks before the Moscow Games, had been a candidate for local office for the Social Democratic Party, which supported the Moscow boycott. But Mennea went to Moscow anyway, after 15 years of training and two previous Olympic attempts.

But why punish an athlete? Mennea says. “The athletes must go to China because they worked for years for this meeting and the choice of the site was not their fault,’’ he said.

However, Cinquanta’s rather personal comment about Mennea’s worthiness appeared to unleash a flood of pent-up emotion from Mennea on the subject of Olympics and the worthiness of its officials. Mennea also once worked for the Italian political party headed by anti-corruption magistrate Antonio de Pietro.

Mennea retorted, saying Cinquanta had reduced his entire sports career to one Olympic Games (he competed at five Olympic Games and held the world record for the 200 metres for 17 years).

“It is obvious that this man does not know history,’’ Mennea said, speaking of Cinquanta. “Not mine. And not even that of Tibet, which is worse.’’

He accused Cinquanta of being one of the ones who voted to stage the Olympics in Beijing in the first place “when everyone knew that in that country, the human rights were not respected.’’

And Mennea went further, attacking the IOC for being interested only in business and not sport or athletes. “The real problem is not even China,’’ he said. It’s the “caste” system of the IOC.

He said IOC members voted in 2001 for Beijing to stage the Games because, at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch was retiring from his post as IOC president, and Jacques Rogge needed the support of the Asian countries to take his place. “And the Asian countries wanted the Games in Beijing,’’ Mennea said. “Simple as that.’’

“They go to China because China is powerful, as in 1936, they went to Berlin, to Hitler,’’ he said. “In those days, Baron de Coubertin said that the Nazi Germany had reached the zenith of social progress. Fantastic, eh?’’

Mennea said the Olympics must lose “the apparatus,’’ and the debts that accrue to host cities that struggle to pay for them for years. He says the previous Italian government - ousted in elections over the weekend - had just allotted more money to maintain the Turin Olympic sports structures “which are totally useless.’’

Enough with politics, he exclaimed. “Let’s go back to a permanent site, always the same one,’’ he suggested. And he’s not the first to think this.

Mennea said athletes shouldn’t have to pay for the mistakes of the likes of Cinquanta, and that TV rights shouldn’t finance the games. He deplored the fact that swimming finals at the Beijing Games will be held in the morning to comply with the requests of the networks in North America. “They could not care less of the physiological needs of the champions,’’ Mennea said.

Cinquanta said that world sport would die in 48 hours if they stopped the Games, because everybody would file lawsuits. “It would blow up,’’ he said. “There are federations that live or survive only with the Olympic Games.’’

One sad reality: The money to finance the Games has to come from somewhere. But Mennea’s opinions have the ring of truth.

Nations like Britain and Australia supported the 1980 Olympic boycott, but gave their athletes the choice of competing or not. The U.S. government took the boycott more seriously. President Jimmy Carter threatened to revoke the passport of any athlete who tried to travel to the Soviet Union for the Games.

In the end, about 65 nations boycotted the Olympics, and only 80 showed up.

Mennea isn’t alone in his concern over China’s human-rights record.

A 75-year-old Japanese man who makes the heavy metal balls used by shot putters, is refusing to let his balls be used at the Beijing Games because of the Tibet situation.

“I think a great deal of my shots, which have my true heart in them,’’ Masahisa Tsujitani told a wire service from Tokyo this week. “I’m sorry for athletes, but this is about my pride as a craftsman.’’

He also plans to boycott other international sports competitions in China.

Tsujitani has been making shots for four decades and is believed to be the only person in the world who makes them by hand on a lathe, rather than by a computerized machine.

All of the medalists in the men’s competition at the past three Olympics have used Tsujitani’s shots.

Could the loss of Tsujitani’s shots also make it less likely that the Beijing Olympics will produce shot put records?

In four years when he is 79, Tsijitani plans to offer up his shots for the London Olympics in 2010 - if he’s still able.

Japan has expressed concern about the Tibet situation, but said it would not support a boycott. Japan was one of the countries that boycotted the Moscow Games.

Intelligent man, that Mennea. Good post.

Yes very bright…better reading the interview than listening though:) …some hard south italian accent…