by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & had to laugh last week at the news item about how a team of climbers hauled the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest. Might've been the only place they could get away from all the protestors.

It brought me back to thinking about when the torch passed through the United States, with objectors conscientiously dogging its every step. We ran a photo of a couple daredevils unveiling huge "Free Tibet" banners after they scaled the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge. I remember thinking I should have been more outraged -- more into the cause.

But I really just felt kind of sorry for China. Not for the government of China, mind you, but for the people of China -- people so clearly proud to emerge from a turbulent history to host this celebration of the nations of the world.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & N & lt;/span & ow the calls are coming to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games -- some leaders are pondering whether to sit out the opening ceremonies as a display of displeasure-but-not-quite-outrage over China's role in troubles in Tibet and Darfur.

It's nothing new, really -- the Olympics have been a political punching bag dating back to 1956. Most notably, however, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Carter decided the United States would not participate unless they withdrew. As a result, 64 nations joined the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union led a 15-nation boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Perhaps it kept America's conscience clear, but when the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics did it really punish the Soviet government? Afghanistan certainly hastened the demise of the Soviet experiment, but there's no compelling case that the boycott helped end Communism. But fighting the Cold War via the Olympics certainly whipped up anger on both sides -- and punished the athletes and fans.

Sometimes, letting the games go on can bring unexpected rewards. If ever there was a government to protest, it was Nazi Germany's. Nonetheless, in 1936 Berlin hosted the games, and Adolf Hitler intended to use them for maximum propaganda.

So Hitler was furious that the clearly non-Aryan American, Jesse Owens, won four gold medals, invalidating his ridiculous superiority complex. And one of those medals was won with the kind of sportsmanship and international brotherhood the games are famous for. In the long jump qualifying round, Owens had foot-faulted twice; a third, and he'd have been disqualified. That's when German Luz Long -- the world record holder -- came over and advised Owens to jump from a distance behind the line, just to make the cut to the next round. Of course Owens made it and wound up beating Long for one of his four golds.

Despite their leader's snub, the German people loved Owens, and so did Long, who walked him out of the stadium, arm in arm.

That's the kind of indelible image that has lasting power -- that shows in simple, human terms how the world could look. Like Gandhi preaching non-cooperation while liberating India. Or like Martin Luther King Jr. leading the march on Washington to secure civil rights for all Americans. And certainly like that unnamed Chinese man who stood in front of a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests.

So sometimes protests -- even boycotts -- have been the only way to bring change. You might review those examples above and think Gandhi and King were successful, but that brave man in China was not. I would argue that his stand marked a moment of change. Between 1989 and today, China is a fundamentally changed nation. Its human rights record is alarming, but it is changing from within -- slowly but surely. (Viewed against the span of recorded Chinese history, which dates back thousands of years, these changes have been like a whirlwind.)

So which is the right way to bring change to a nation whose government we don't like? Do we offer gentle nudges, first winning the people's hearts over to the Western world? Or do we condemn entire nations for the actions of their governments? Do these Olympic protests make the average Chinese citizen feel more alienated from the rest of the world and more nationalistic? As when we labeled the nation of Iran as "evil," do we paint too many people unfairly with the same broad brush? How do we create a more peaceful planet: from the bottom up, or from the top down?

These are complex questions, hard to pin down to the succinct message of a T-shirt or banner.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & think Americans get it. We are a much more savvy bunch of citizens than we were in the 1960s. We have lived through the collateral damage of explosive protests. Yes, progress won the day when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, but it also engendered a generation of politics based on appealing to the worst part of America's soul -- the Southern Strategy, as it has been called. And while the protests over the Vietnam War may have turned the tide of public opinion, the movement certainly did not eradicate the deeply held impulse among some influential Americans to engage in misguided military adventures.

This might explain why there are so few massive protests over this war and this president. This time, the dissidents are working through existing political system, making sound arguments -- while supporting the troops -- to bring lasting change. American activism is alive and well -- it's just smarter and more responsible.

Which brings us back to the Olympics. Yes, I'd like to see China change -- heck, I'd like to see the world change. But I think we need to separate our anger at a government from our respect for a people. For that reason, I'd like to see a politics-free Olympics. Activism has its place, but when it comes to the Olympics, I say let 'em play.

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