Although it has been embroidered with the ersatz regalia of antiquity, the Olympic torch relay does not, in fact, date back to the ancient Greeks or even to Pierre de Coubertin, the organizer of the first modern games, in 1896. It was the brainchild of Carl Diem, who spearheaded the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the approving gaze of Josef Goebbels and Adolf Hitler. Designed by Krupp–the German munitions company whose owners were indicted for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg–the torch was carried into the Olympiastadion by the elegant and very Aryan 1,500-meter runner Fritz Schilgen in front of a phalanx of swastikas and the cameras of Leni Riefenstahl, who documented the whole affair in her paean to the Nazi physique and spirit, Olympia.

As international protests shadow the Olympic flame on its Journey of Harmony from Athens to Beijing, it’s important to bear these ignoble roots in mind, not because of any meaningful parallels between the Third Reich and the regime in China but as a reminder that the torch relay and indeed the Olympics are inherently political events–provisioned by big business, broadcast by the propagandists of yesteryear and the corporate media of today and hosted and contested by nation-states seeking glory beyond sport. An understanding of the Olympics as such ought to quell any outcry from Chinese and International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials who grouse that demonstrators are improperly politicizing the games. If China, with the support of the IOC, plans to use Beijing 2008 as an advertisement for Chinese nationalism and market “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it can hardly complain when protests raised by or on behalf of Tibetan and Uighur separatists; the victims of genocide in Darfur and repression in Burma; Chinese unionists, farmers, environmentalists, AIDS activists and other internal dissidents flip the script and borrow a bit of the spotlight for their respective causes.

But the history of Olympic politics ought also to serve as a cautionary note to campaigners. The boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were little more than cold war theater at the expense of athletes’ fortunes, and given the unpopularity of a repeat fiasco–never mind the substantial investments corporations have already made in the games–few are calling for a total boycott. Instead the compromise seems to have become a “mini-boycott” in which world leaders decline to attend the opening ceremonies. Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s Gordon Brown have indicated that they will play along; Hillary Clinton has called on George W. Bush to do the same, and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is mulling it over. The problem with this petite insurrection is that it will likely prove a mere irritation to Chinese leaders, who are inclined, at best, to make tiny and temporary gestures of reform in response. As a bit of moral pageantry–in which Bush hardly has the moral authority to participate–it allows elites to make a symbolic stand while gorging themselves on the Olympian spectacle. Where is the space for real dissent–by workers, by athletes, by movements–in all this?

A more enduring if more arduous path to improving human rights would sidestep the nationalism implicit in any Olympics boycott. It begins by creating leverage on China through pressing the transnational corporations that exploit cheap Chinese labor and rely on foreign direct investment from China to keep their profits flowing. The sports extravaganza in Beijing in August can provide the occasion to publicize this campaign, but its targets must also include the boardrooms of Western corporations and the ministerials of the WTO.