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Avoiding the Olympics: Who's Going to the Games?

EU foreign ministers meeting in Slovenia are discussing just what kind of signal should be sent to China, given the recent clampdown on Tibet. While there is no talk of a full Olympic boycott, many European politicians are not planning to attend the opening ceremony.

Some European politicians are planning to avoid the Olympics.
AFP

Some European politicians are planning to avoid the Olympics.

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was the first to announce that he would be staying away from the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games as a matter of political principle. Now, other heads of state are announcing their attendance plans, but none so far seem to share Tusk's overt political convictions.

On Thursday, Tusk told the Polish daily Dziennik that he felt the participation of politicians at the event would be "inappropriate". On Wednesday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus announced that he would not be attending the Olympics in China, but that this was not intended as a "threat to China."

Now, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have announced that they are not going to take part in the opening ceremonies either, but they were careful to explain that their decision had nothing to do with a boycott. Speaking on Friday from a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Slovenian city of Bardo, Steinmeier said he had never intended to go to the opening ceremonies: "So there's nothing to be cancelled. What the other heads of state have planned, I can't say." Steinmeier said he did not expect the EU foreign ministers to form a united policy on Olympic attendance.

In Berlin, government spokesman Thomas Steg expanded on Steinmeier's statement, and confirmed that Chancellor Merkel never intended to attend the Olympics -- neither the opening ceremonies, nor the Games themselves. He said that Wolfgang Schäuble, whose portfolio as Interior Minister includes sport, was not planning to attend the opening ceremonies but would be visiting the event itself.

A spokesman from the German president's office in Berlin confirmed that President Horst Köhler was likewise not planning to attend the opening ceremonies on August 8 but would be paying a visit to the Paralympic Games, the Olympic Games for the disabled, which will take place Beijing following the main event. Köhler attended the openings of both of the last Olympic Games in Athens and Turin.

On Friday, winding up his visit with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in London, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he would "reserve the right to say whether I will attend." His decision will depend on the positions within the 27-member EU, whose presidency France takes over on July 1. Brown has refused a British boycott of the Games and said he will be attending the closing ceremonies and fulfilling ceremonial duties, given that London is to host the Summer Olympics in 2012.

Steinmeier has made clear that he does not support a boycott of the Games. "A 'no' to the Olympics, to relieve our consciences won't help the people in China, nor the athletes," he said on Friday. Furthermore, Steinmeier rejects the idea of only having large sporting events take place in Western Europe, North America, South Korea and Japan, seeing them as an opportunity to shift international focus onto parts of the world otherwise not "at the center of our attentions."

On Thursday, Chinese authorities invited a group of foreign journalists into Tibet for the first time since the last ones were escorted out on March 20. Roughly 30 Tibetan monks stormed the news briefing, which took place in the Jokhang Temple, accusing Chinese authorities of dishonesty and murder. The conference was aborted after fifteen minutes. The human rights groups International Campaign for Tibet fears possible retaliation against the monks by Chinese authorities.

China maintains its position that the protest, which began on March 14 to mark the 49th anniversary of Tibet's first anti-Chinese uprising, was a criminal act organized by separatists and followers of the Dalai Lama. China has refused to enter into discussion with Tibet about the causes of the tension. The Tibetan government in exile claims that 140 have died in the protests so far, while the Chinese authorities put the figure at 19.

nmb/afp/ap

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