By Michael Shank and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY)

In the tradition of politically charged Olympics of the past, the 2008 summer games in Beijing have become an arena to contest some of the world’s most egregious conflicts. From concerns over China’s crackdown on Tibetan rights to the country’s slothful response vis-a-vis Darfur, government and business leaders alike are seizing the opportunity to wage political proxy wars, with the aim of using sport to influence China’s handling of human rights and genocide. President George Bush, in a recent gathering of American Olympians at the White House, encouraged athletes to be “ambassadors of liberty” and represent this country’s commitment to “human rights and human dignity” to the people of China — despite his caveat insisting that the venue not be politicized.

There is no doubt that our athletes will perform well and come home victorious on many levels. Yet, despite the president’s meritorious message or the merit of criticism of China’s human rights record, the United States will compete in the world’s largest quadrennial athletic confab ranked poorly on a completely different, but not unrelated scale. In this ranking, the U.S. comes in some 30 slots below China. What are we talking about? The Global Peace Index, released this summer by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

In its second year, the Peace Index rates where countries stand in relation to levels of violence within their respective societies. The Economist Intelligence Unit measures a range of conflict and security factors from violent crime and homicide levels, to incarceration rates and weapons access, to levels of disrespect for human rights. Each country is categorized according to its findings. And unlike in the 2006 Olympics in Torino, in which the U.S. brought home a total of 25 gold, silver, and bronze medals, bested only by Germany’s 29 medals, this year’s Peace Index top ranker — Iceland — was not even on Torino’s list of the top 26 medal-winning nations. (Interestingly, Norway was able to manage athleticism and an absence of violence, ranking No. 1 in the 2007 Peace Index while pulling in 19 medals in the 2006 Olympics.)

So how does the U.S. measure in terms of peacefulness? Coming in far behind its EU allies — Germany ranks 14th, France is 36th, UK ranks 49th — the U.S. rallies in 97th place, a one-slot difference from last year’s Index. This is hardly a rosy picture for America.

The domestic data is daunting with more than 17,000 murders the last the FBI counted (2006, official data), one incarceration for every 100 adult persons, and 1.4 million violent crime offenses. We are also at the back of the pack in the numbers for robbery, rape, and assault.

We didn’t fare any better on the foreign policy front. In a year in which the United Nations is celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — a treaty still not ratified by America — Attorney General Michael Mukasey is now attempting to override a recent Supreme Court ruling that provides Guantanamo detainees with basic habeas corpus rights. This exemplifies well the level of disregard for human rights within the administration.

Our athletes will find it quite a challenge to criticize China’s human rights agenda when America’s commitment to human rights since the last two Olympiads has been so weak. America’s athletic dynamism and superiority in the Olympics — which is essentially a testament to individual health — must be matched by an equally vigorous commitment to our nation’s health.

We may have the fastest and strongest athletes in the world, but we also have some of the most deadly and violent streets in the developed world. Gold medals are important, but many Americans feel disconnected from that sense of honor and glory when their neighborhoods are too dangerous to enjoy. As with any sport, record-setting inspires record-breaking.

If the U.S. wants China to excel in the arena of human rights, one will need to set the record soon because the bar is embarrassingly low right now.

If the Global Peace Index can herald the gold medaling for excellence in national health as the Olympics does for excellence in individual aptitude, so much the better. In the meantime, however, some simple practice in the sport of peace will do. When it comes to the human race, it may well be the sport that saves us.

Michael Shank is government relations adviser of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. Contact him through the Web site Rep. Gregory Meeks represents New York’s 6th Congressional District. Contact him at