The Olympic Games were first held in Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and from the beginning have carried the message that nations should gather in peace and compete in sports. There is an inherent kinship between the peaceful Olympic Games and the peaceful ways of democratic and free nations, and the Olympics have had their finest moments when hosted by democratic countries.
The years 1936 and 2008 have in common the hosting of the Olympic Games by totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany and Communist China.
Nazi Germany was a one-party regime, as is China today. Both the Nazi and Chinese Communist parties struggled to gain power and the Nazis endeavored, just as the Chinese regime is endeavoring today, to establish a good reputation by hosting the Olympic Games.
Nazi Germany invented the tradition of having a torch relay, which served to connect and bind as many countries as possible to the event in Berlin. It was a propaganda campaign, one that continues to have an impact.
China has taken the torch relay to the extreme by planning the longest torch relay ever in history, including going high up atop Mount Everest. At every step the Beijing torch is protected by "torch guards," whose presence is already a break with the Olympic spirit.
These totalitarian Olympics may put a parenthesis around the torch relay: After the protest-plagued 2008 Olympic torch relay, the IOC is considering ending the tradition that started in Berlin.
Before holding the Olympic Games Nazi Germany had started to persecute the Jewish community, although it did not begin the "final solution" until several years later. The Nazis didn't even dare to officially exclude Jews from participating in the Games (although Jews were prohibited from representing Germany in the Games).
The Chinese regime has not only started to persecute a group of people for their religious beliefs, but is even very frank about its policy of persecution. At the end of 2007 a spokesperson for the Beijing Olympic Committee stated that practitioners of the Falun Gong are excluded from all Olympic activities.
All human rights organizations and governments know that Falun Gong is one of the main victims of state-sanctioned persecution in China. Several thousand adherents have been tortured to death because of their beliefs.
In Nazi Germany, Dr. Josef Mengele started human experiments on Jews after the Berlin Olympics, during the Holocaust.
In today's Communist China medical doctors have for several years been extracting organs from living Falun Gong practitioners for profit. The live organ harvesting is believed to have started in 2001, the same year that China won the bid for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Nazi Germany needed all countries to come to the Olympic Games in Berlin as a sign of the legitimacy of the Nazi regime. Nothing less is the case in China: The attendance of government officials from around the world at the opening ceremony is considered a measure of approval for the Chinese regime.
The fascist German regime and the communist Chinese regime would appear to be opposites, although similar in betraying the Olympic spirit. However, the communist regime in China has adopted so many capitalistic measures that it cannot be considered communist anymore. Since 1989 it has transformed itself into a fascist regime that uses the Communist Party to dominate society and ruthless capitalistic measures to provide sustaining fuel for the Party's rule.
Of course, the Chinese regime doesn't have a Führer like Adolf Hitler, who was the leader of a movement that sought to vindicate Germany's greatness. However, in China, the Communist Party plays a role similar to that of the Führer, demanding all serve it as the embodiment of China's national destiny.
In the debate about whether the Berlin Olympics should have been boycotted, some claim that Jesse Owens competing in the Olympics refuted Adolf Hitler's racist theories. However, Owens' four gold medals were not able to stop the Holocaust in which an estimated 8 million were killed. In looking back, we might ask if a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Games would not have been more successful in helping avoid World War II and the Holocaust.
In 1936, there were no precedents for how to deal with an Olympic Games held in a totalitarian country. In 2008, we once again face the question how to deal with a totalitarian host of the Olympic Games.
The Chinese regime argues that sports and politics should be separated.
The Olympic Charter speaks of placing "sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."
The Charter also speaks of "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles."
By describing as "politics" any objections to systematic violations of human rights that retard the harmonious development of man, deprive society of peace, destroy human dignity, and violate "universal fundamental ethical principles," the Chinese regime is not separating "politics" from sports. It is separating the Olympic Games from their hallowed purpose. And it is doing so even while increasing the persecution against groups like the Tibetans and the Falun Gong.
It is fitting that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up under communism in East Germany, should be one of the first national leaders in her actions to show an understanding of the significance of the Beijing Olympics. She knows that basic human rights cannot be considered independent from other issues, much less the Olympics, and she has lead the way for other European leaders by announcing she will not attend the Opening Ceremony in Beijing.
In 1936 the world, when confronted with a betrayal of the Olympics by a totalitarian regime, failed to uphold the fundamental principles central to the Olympic movement. This year the world gets a second chance. The nations of the world may choose to participate in the self-promotion of a brutal regime and in doing so to betray the Olympic spirit or they may insist that the Olympics must be kept true to itself.