The Olympics are coming, and with them a new opportunity for the holier than thou amongst us to urge boycotts in the service of political agendas. Anne Applebaum of Slate gets the party started with this essay. She doesn’t actually call for a boycott, but she seems awfully sympathetic to those who are calling for one:
No wonder, then, that everyone who hates or fears China, whether in Burma, Darfur, Tibet, or Beijing, is calling for a boycott. And the Chinese government and the IOC are terrified that they will succeed. No one involved in the preparations for this year’s Olympics really believes that this is “only about the athletes,” or that the Beijing Games will be an innocent display of sporting prowess, or that they bear no relation to Chinese politics. I don’t see why the rest of us should believe it, either.
Now, I’m a bit biased here. Not because I have any fondness for the Chinese government, mind you. It’s just that I really, really, really love the Olympics. For the two weeks that they are on, I can’t get enough of them. Yes, the jingoistic coverage bothers me, as do the incessant melodramatic human-interest stories, the preening commentators, the bias towards events Americans are good at, and the constant hand-wringing about the medal count. But in the end, I can look past all that and just enjoy the sheer spectacle of watching people who are really good at really exotic things.
I like watching Greco-Roman Wrestling once every four years. Or Air Rifle. Or Weightlifting. Or Pole Vaulting. I like seeing athletes from all over the world, even from the tiny countries you don’t usually think about, come together to compete in sporting events. At the risk of seeming mawkish, I find something inspiring about the whole affair.
So I want the Olympics to go on, and I get nervous when people start talking about boycotts. Participating in the games does not mean you are endorsing anything the host country has done or is doing, and it does not mean you can’t go back to hating them when the Olympics are over. Besides, participating in the Olympics only when you approve of the host country rather defeats the purpose of them, wouldn’t you say?
That said, I can imagine situations where I might support a boycott. In 1986 the World Chess Olympiad was held in the United Arab Emirates, and they would not allow the Israeli team to participate. Rather a lot of people called for a boycott, and a lot of chess players stayed home. The event went on nevertheless, but that is a boycott I would have supported. There is a difference, though, between that and the Beijing games. Barring a team from participating cuts directly to the heart of what these international competitions are supposed to be about. That is different from objecting to the internal politics of the host country.
It’s not a simple issue, but in the end I think the international good will fostered by the games is more important than any short-term moral victory scored by boycotting. Go to the games and shame them into changing their behavior. That will do far more good than staying home and giving them an excuse for hardening their positions.