By Matt Braunstein

Any man, woman or child who proclaims him or herself to be a sports fan takes great pride in doing so. We choose sports, teams, and players to idolize and identify with to bolster up as our heroes and role models. This is often a decision driven by the shared qualities we recognize between our heroes and ourselves, like a certain attitude, a physical appearance, a set of values, or a history of success and excellence. In some cases it is a history of failure and shortcomings that help us relate to an athlete or team.

Perhaps the most powerful identifying force between a fan and their favorite player or team is home. It can be the shared home field where both the athletes and the fans come together as spectators or participants in the purest of competitions. Maybe it’s the hometowns of our favorite athletes, where others raised there feel that they too can achieve greatness. Any way you cut it, a shared home is the glue that holds a sport and a nation together.

This is why of all sport’s greatest traditions-, the Olympics is perhaps its oldest and most storied. The first Olympic games ever played took place in Ancient Olympia, Greece around 776 BC. It was the first sporting competition of its kind, as the greatest Greek athletes assembled to honor their gods and win the favor of their people. Though it was discontinued in 393 AD, it was revived hundreds of years later in Athens.

1896 marked the first modern Olympic games in which all the civilized world’s athletes were invited to compete in 43 contested events including track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. The games have continued on ever since, constantly expanding and evolving, and every four years each country sends their best and brightest competitors to represent the honor and greatness of their nation.

This is not a history lesson, but merely a plea to all those that are protesting this year’s Olympics to put your picket signs and fire extinguishers down and go home. The running of the Olympic torch across five consecutive continents in the months leading up to the actual games has been one of the event’s great traditions up until this year. This summer’s Olympics are being held in Beijing, China and has sparked a protest movement of activists primarily against China’s oppression in Tibet and their overall human rights record in Darfur and Burma.

At each of the torch’s stops in London, Paris and most recently San Francisco, protesters have gone so far as to attack the torchbearer and spray the “eternal” flame with a fire extinguisher. Now, security and police on rollerblades must surround the flame procession and actual fans of the Olympics are barely allowed within an eye’s view of the flame. This absurd and insulting fiasco has gone on long enough.

Whether or not China deserves this negative attention is not what should be argued. Their treatment of Tibet, and for that matter, any other issue concerning China’s foreign and domestic policy, has absolutely nothing to do with the Olympic games. Too long have political themes and undertones been thrust upon the stage of sports and athletics against the will of the athletes and true fans.

Sports, especially at the Olympics, were never meant to be functions of a country’s political agenda. In fact, if there was ever a public arena that was never to be touched by the viral and exacerbating influence of politics, it was sports. The Olympics is about pure competition amongst athletes who dedicate years of their lives to a few weeks for a chance at glory. They carry the expectations, hopes and dreams of their entire country on their backs. They don’t need the added pressure of angry mobs pouting about something the athletes themselves have nothing to do with.

Not to say that these angry mobs don’t have the right to voice their opinion. A firm believer in freedom would say that it is these people’s duty to have their voices heard. However, there is a time and place for such activism and it is not at the Olympics. It’s one thing to see a group of protestors marching in circles and chanting clever insults, but the more extremists you see dousing the Olympic flame while being attacked by a mob of policemen, the more it looks like a cheap publicity stunt.

If these activists want to be taken seriously as a real movement, then they should avoid being seen as reckless press whores. Have some dignity, march on the Chinese capitol or write a letter to your elected representative, but leave the Olympics and any other major sporting event out of it. No good comes from labeling uninvolved entities in a controversial political struggle.

I’m sure some of these activists are old enough to have lived through the 1972 Olympic tragedy in Munich, Germany. Palestinian terrorists, who also saw the Olympics as a great opportunity to make a political statement, took 11 Israeli athletes hostage as the rest of the world watched in horror. In the end, an event meant to foster international pride and unity concluded with 11 Israelis, 5 Palestinians, and 1 German policeman dead.

If we are not to learn from our mistakes, then we should at least rely on our sense of decency and respect for history. For hundreds of years, the Olympic games have stood for the best that organized sports has to offer. Principles like sportsmanship, excellence, dedication, passion, and pride; these are what lay at the heart of the Olympic tradition. Let us take pride in the performance of our athletes and not the mistakes of our nations.