Monday, November 2, 2009

Canada Shores Up Arctic Claims With Olympic Flame

BROOKLYN, New York -- The torch relay for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver began on Friday. The Olympic flame started its Canadian journey in Victoria, British Columbia, and over the course of 106 days, it will travel 28,000 miles to hundreds of Canadian towns and cities, arriving back in Vancouver for the opening ceremonies on February 12.

One of the communities the torch will visit is Alert, which sits on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the province of Nunavut. Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth, located just 507 miles from the North Pole. The torch will be flown more than 1,700 miles from Churchill, Manitoba just so it can briefly touch down and greet the five permanent inhabitants of Alert, all members of the Canadian military who man the signals and weather stations there. Alert will not be the only stop north of the Arctic Circle - on its way back south, the torch will stop in Ausuittuq (also known as Grise Fiord) and Qausuittuq (Resolute) in Nunavut. It will also make stops in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Nunavut, Inuvit, Northwest Territories and Old Crow, Yukon Territory.

This arctic leg of the relay is particularly interesting because it has obvious geopolitical overtones. In recent years, Canada has increased its military presence in the north in an attempt to shore up sovereignty that it sees as increasingly under threat. The region is gaining geostrategic importance. As ocean temperatures rise and sea ice retreats, the Northwest Passage through Canada’s vast northern archipelago may become a viable year-round shipping lane. The arctic also holds vast untapped supplies of natural resources, especially oil and gas, that may become accessible in the near future.

The main competitors for these arctic treasures are the United States and Russia. The US refuses to recognize Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, asserting that it is international waters that foreign ships can ply without Canada’s approval. Russia, meanwhile, has claimed that its own territorial waters - and therefore its claims to undersea resources - extended to the North Pole and beyond, setting its maritime boundaries uncomfortably close to Canada. In 2007, in an apparent attempt to legitimize this claim, Russia sent a submarine to the bottom of the ocean at the Pole to plant a small Russian flag on the sea floor (they appear to be unaware that flag-planting ceased to be a legitimate way to make territorial claims sometime in the 17th century).

Now Canada is using the Olympics to further shore up its claims to the arctic, and the torch can be used to enhance sovereignty both externally and internally. Externally, the torch’s arrival in Alert signals to the world that Canada considers these far-flung regions as integral parts of their national territory. Internally, it binds these remote communities to the national center - Canadians who live in the arctic, or who are members of the First Nations minority, are just as much a part of the national celebration as the metropolitan south or Anglo-, French- or any other type of Canadian (the weekly television show Hockey Night in Canada plays a similar role).

Canada is not unique in doing this. Most host countries carry the torch through every one of their constituent regions. At the last Olympics, the Chinese government used the torch relay to reaffirm its territorial integrity, carrying it across the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and even to the top of Mt. Everest (the Himalayan region has long been at the center of territorial disputes between China, India and Pakistan). Much of the torch relay in 2008 was besieged by protesters in foreign countries who spoke out against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet and elsewhere, but once the flame reached China proper, it was met mostly with celebration of the Olympics as a symbol of Chinese global power and national unity.

During this march to Beijing, the American news media rediscovered the origins of the torch relay in the 1936 Berlin Games and spoke breathlessly about “Hitler’s Olympics” and the parallels with Red China and their nationalist spectacle. Chinese nationalism can be a terrifying and dangerous thing, and the government has shown a great deal of recklessness and a great lack of control whenever it unleashes nationalist anger. Nonetheless, the point here is that no one is above using sport, especially the Olympics, for promoting nationalism. The 1936 Olympics created many iconic images that linked sport to fascism, militarism, and racial prejudice. We like to think that instead we have inherited the mantle of Jesse Owens, who embarrassed the Master Race, but Berlin lives on at every Olympics. China was chided for its global torch tour, but no other country has shied away from the practice because of its Nazi origins. The International Olympic Committee has long been run by fascists, from Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage to Francoist Juan Antonio Samaranch. The current body is filled by corrupt sycophants and apologists who hand the Olympics to the highest bidder, even if it is an oppressive dictatorship like China or Russia. We would all be better off if we just did away with the Olympics entirely - the institution is too corrupt and too compromised to even approach any of the lofty goals it aspires to.

Canada is using the Olympics, albeit in a tiny, insignificant way, to further its geopolitical agenda, but so does every other country that hosts the Olympics. When Russia inherits the Olympic flame in 2014 for the Winter Games in Sochi, it will undoubtedly be used for far more aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist purposes. It will likely make stops in Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but I bet that it will also be taken to the North Pole, either undersea or over ice.

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