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Human rights not on Olympic radar, says BC athlete

Cracks have formed in the Olympic dreams of Canadian Nikki Dryden. As a record-holding swimmer, sport advocate and international lawyer, she wants “to reclaim what it means to be an Olympian.”

Now a prominent human rights lawyer, 17 years ago, then-teenage swimmer Nikki Dryden competed for Canada at the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics. Born in Calgary and raised on Vancouver Island, Dryden competed at world championships before moving to the U.S. to study law. She now advocates on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers in New York City and is not shy about publicizing her activism. (http://teamdarfur.ngphost.com/node/704)

Dryden spoke with Chris Shaw of The Vancouver Observer during a break at the international conference on sport and democracy, Play the Game ( http://www.playthegame.org/ ) in Coventry, England.

VO: You gave a very passionate talk on the opening day of the meeting during which you expressed frustration at the gap between the ideals of the Olympics and the failure of the IOC and governments to live up to these ideals. Can you elaborate?

ND: I feel that I’m at a crossroads in my career as an Olympian and promoter of the Olympics. I’ve benefited enormously because of my association with the Olympics, made friends, had adventures, and this association has also helped pay for my education. The Olympics has created a whole new set of opportunities for me, one that is special to many Olympians. I didn’t appreciate this at first, only later when I was helping out on New York’s bid [the failed bid for the 2012 Summer Games] and that’s when I appreciated what it meant to be associated with the Olympics. I really became proud of my achievements even though I never won a medal: For 13 years I had thought I was a failure, but hanging out with a gold medalist as part of New York’s bid I realized I had achieved something great as well.

VO: New York lost its bid for the 2012 Games to London. How did you feel about it?

ND: I was disappointed in New York’s loss but felt my part was a profoundly personal achievement. Originally, I had been hesitant to get involved in the bid, knew of corruption and other problems, but I was convinced New York was running a clean bid. I spoke to school kids about Olympic stuff, held press conferences, trying to balance giving back through the bid what the Olympics had done for me.

VO: There was a lot of opposition to the bid in New York.

ND: People were up in arms about the [proposed] stadium, and the lack of public support was one of the biggest problems for the bid. I was completely on board because I believed that winning the Games would be one of the greatest things ever to happen to New York, my new home town. I was upset that we lost the bid, particularly because I had become friends with many working on it [the bid].

VO: You were active with Team Darfur last summer before the Beijing Games, the group trying to get Beijing to force the Sudanese government to observe human rights in Darfur. Can you tell us a bit about that and what happened?

ND: I got involved with Team Darfur to hold the Chinese government accountable for peace and for [keeping to] Olympic values—and the same for the IOC. Getting involved in this opened up a whole other world about the Olympic Games, and as a human rights lawyer I already knew about Olympic issues, the forced evictions for [the building of] venues, the labour conditions for those making Olympic merchandise, and the issue of dissident suppression in China of those speaking out against the Olympics. I started to feel a crack forming in my Olympic dreams. I had believed in the IOC completely, but they had failed to hold the Chinese government accountable for human rights violations in that country or promote the Olympic truce in Darfur. I learned a lot in the campaign and was really disappointed that the IOC caved in to the Chinese and to their corporate sponsors.

VO: What came next in your voyage of discovery about the Olympics?

ND: I moved to Kenya doing refugee work in 2009 and started to think about these issues again, picked up your book and read this and others about the Olympics. This has brought me to my current crossroads and I can’t be complicit with the path the Olympic movement is on. But what do I do, what I can do? I want to reclaim what it means to be an Olympian, the meaning has become completely different from the ideal of the Olympic Games, from reality. I need to know how to justify the Olympics when I know what is really going on.

VO: As a former British Columbian, you are likely familiar with the events leading up to Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Games. Are you excited about this or do you have concerns?

ND: It’s out of control. The stuff I read in your book really shocked me. I think that there are legitimate concerns from myriad constituencies who deserve a voice and the opportunity to be heard. Because the Games will be held in Canada, we need to compare ourselves to Beijing. The Games should reflect the best environmental practices that China failed on and we should be taking the opportunity to show what the Olympics can be. Canada has a unique opportunity to lead reforms and make us proud to be Canadian. [And] we have to admit where we are failing [and accept that] we did what we could.

VO: Why do you suppose so many host city promises are broken or later shown to be hollow?

ND: To use a sport metaphor, you can’t show weakness, don’t want to seem weak. Instead of using the Olympics as a way to make painful changes to what your city looks like physically and image-wise and really fix things that otherwise wouldn’t be fixed, to get the Games, you have to present a happy, perfect picture.

VO: You heard former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound’s talk at Play the Game on the IOC’s 1999 reforms after the Salt Lake City scandals. In response to the question about the women’s ski jump lawsuit against VANOC, he called the women’s case “silly and badly advised.” Comments?

ND: The IOC has a lot of misogyny issues that remain today. Pound just typifies this.

VO: Clearly you still believe in the ideals of the Olympic movement. Where do you think it lost the thread?

ND: Commercialization has ruined it. I know that many athletes would still go even without rewards attached to it, but the possibility of massive financial rewards means that people may want to break rules along way and has distorted the original ideals. It’s not that it was perfect before the 1950s, but it was (then) striving to become a more perfect symbol of what humanity could be. Now it’s just going the wrong way. So many people make money off the Games to ever turn back now. We need to figure out a way to control it, stop the run-away-train that the whole thing has become. Swimmers will swim…even if no one watching. I really hope we can put on the brakes.

Photo above of Nikki Dryden courtesy of swimacrossamerica.org

Megan Stewart contributed to this story.

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