Boycott the Olympics?

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.

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    March 25, 2008

    Consider why it is that the Chinese so desperately wanted the Olympics there and then reconsider why they would feel any shame at all from having them successfully attended.

    On the other hand a threatened boycott may simply speed up the elimination of any disturbing elements in Tibet. Look how quickly the troubles in Burma have faded into the background.

    And the only people who would join in the boycott would likely be those who never intended to support the games to begin with.

    I say let’s go to the Olympics in droves and cheer like hell for visiting teams. (I was planning on going anyway so easy for me to say.)

  2. #2 Tony P
    March 25, 2008

    I look at what the Chinese are doing to those in Tibet and I think all western nations should boycott.

    Until China gets rid of its communist doctrine they should not be counted.

  3. #3 dorid
    March 25, 2008

    It seems to me to be more than a little hypocritical to be hosting an international gathering of friendly competition, goodwill, and diplomacy in a country which is actively suppressing and violating the rights of Tibet. The Olympics have always been about international support and goodwill, I don’t see why this year should be any different. A boycott is totally in order.

    Although I, too would be sorry not to a strong competition this year. Sometimes entertainment value must take a back seat… especially when we’re dealing with the kind of politics we’ve been seeing in China.

  4. #4 Jim
    March 25, 2008

    royniles…
    You’re actually attending the Olympic games?

    Tony P…

    I look at what the Chinese are doing to those in Tibet and I think all western nations should boycott.

    As if western nations are innocent of international state terrorism.

    Until China gets rid of its communist doctrine they should not be counted.

    What does this mean? Counted as/for what?

  5. #5 royniles
    March 25, 2008

    I’m either going to attend or my grandson will attend in my place. Tickets are already being processed. Part of the reason is that we were invited, so again it’s easy to say we have reason to go.

  6. #6 phil
    March 25, 2008

    I wouldn’t argue for a boycott but I will make a point of not watching the games.

  7. #7 Michael Fridman
    March 25, 2008

    I think we should boycott the Olympics because the legitimacy gained from the Olympics will only increase the human rights violations — as I believe has been documented in terms of China. We know that when something keeps getting coverage — even if silly — dictatorships really ARE affected.

    The Olympics gave Nazi Germany legitimacy because they allowed for a PR campaign to be put on by them, thereby influencing world opinion. The Beijing Olympics will do the same thing.

    Of course you shouldn’t boycott if you disagree with something the host country is doing — but in this case I reckon participation will directly influence human rights abuses and people will die so like the chess comp I’d add this to my list of things-ok-to-boycott

  8. #8 Ian
    March 25, 2008

    I’m all for a boycott as long as we also boycott the next games in the US, which has been violating human rights in Iraq for five years now….

  9. #9 Baratos
    March 25, 2008

    Where there any big boycotts of the Olympics when they were held in Nazi Germany? I remember Hitler being angry about a black guy winning a medal, but thats it.

  10. #10 noiblau
    March 26, 2008

    I would really like if some of you read another point of view about China. Don’t say they are doing the right thing, but even if it’s painful sometimes we should have the whole view to get a proper opinion.
    http://www.noiblau.com

  11. #11 Tom
    March 26, 2008

    About boycotting the Olympic Games, i’m not sure it will do any good…On the contrary it will upset the Chinese People who will only understand what the Party will tell to understand…
    We’d better go as the OG are a great means to directly communicate with the Chinese People without the communist filter.

  12. #12 cooper
    March 26, 2008

    The Olympics, (which I hear long before I was born actually meant something), has long been a very expensive joke, with their fake amateur athletes from one country and true amateur athletes from another.

    The games are nothing more than a large economic incentive. I can only assume they gave these Olympics to China with high hopes that China would temper their human rights policies and enter into the modern world. That didn’t happen but despite the fact the U.N. deemed it necessary pre- Olympic to take China off their human rights violator’s top ten.

    It is a joke China got the games to begin with. These games are supposed to be given after, not before a country actually proves itself worthy, not in hopes an Olympic will lessen an abysmal human rights record but because that abysmal human rights record has improved significantly. That is not the case here.

  13. #13 royniles
    March 26, 2008

    Actually it’s rare that any athletes in modern day Olympics will be true amateurs if the country involved has any professionals available for the particular sport. So in an odd way, the games are more rather than less interesting to watch. But yes, China getting the games is a bit of a joke on those who expected the award would go to the truly deserving. Yet politics and chicanery have always been part of the process.

  14. #14 mobathome
    March 26, 2008

    You would have been willing to support a boycott of the UAE Chess Olympiads because they excluded Israel? It seems for consistency’s sake that you should at least check that the Chinese Olympic team for this year did not exclude native traditionally religious Tibetans.

  15. #15 Russell Blackford
    March 27, 2008

    I think the tit-for-tat boycotts back in the 1980s destroyed any credibility that boycotting the Olympic Games might now have.

    By all means take into account a county’s human rights record when you’re selecting the host, but once a decision’s made, even the “wrong” one, I think the games should almost always go ahead without boycotts … particularly now that boycotts are viewed so cynically.

    It’s an on-balance, all-things-considered judgment, but it would take a case more odious and more obviously extreme than what we’re seeing at the moment in China for it to be better, on balance and all things considered, to have a boycott. Better to have the games go ahead with the inevitable international press focus it will put on the country’s regime, the visits by many foreigners, including press, and so on. I encourage people to go … the more foreigners in Beijing reporting back on the events, the society, etc, the better.

  16. #16 Dave Briggs
    March 27, 2008

    I’m all for a boycott as long as we also boycott the next games in the US, which has been violating human rights in Iraq for five years now….

    Posted by: Ian | March 25, 2008 11:04 PM

    LOL! Good point! I think it goes to show that whoever is holding the games there are going to be people who don’t like the host country! So, my vote goes to have the games. Let them be games devoid of any political significance to whatever extent that is possible and let the whole world have as good a time as they possibly can.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  17. #17 mk
    March 28, 2008

    As I was reading the responses I began formulating my response…then I read mobathome’s response…and that’s pretty much mine. I would add…boycotting an event due to the exclusion of a country vs boycotting an even to due to insane brutality of innocents seems an easy choice. Mine would be different from yours.

    Lastly, it was funny to read this: “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.”

    The cliched phrase, “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln…” comes to mind! ;^}

  18. #18 Helen
    March 29, 2008

    I object to one statement in your essay fairly strongly:

    “That is different from objecting to the internal politics of the host country.”

    Tibet does not consider herself to be part of China. So this is NOT an issue of ‘internal politics’. It is an issue of a large country dominating a smaller one. Imperialism.

  19. #19 jo5ef
    April 5, 2008

    I think the boycott should be on the table. As a New Zealander I recall how effective the sporting boycott of South Africa was in contributing to the ending of apartheid. I myself am undecided but believe that we in the west are generally happy to turn a blind eye to Chinese human reights abuses (refer AI: http://www.amnesty.org/en/news-and-updates/report/what-human-rights-legacy-beijing-olympics-20080401 ).
    Having said that i’m quite sure there will be no siginificant official boycott, I also think the occasion may catalyse protests in Tibet and China. Imagine how effective a Tiannamen square style protest would be at this time…

  20. #20 medical man
    April 7, 2008

    I don’t think boycotting will solve anything. Even during Nazi years, some countries rarely boycott the olympics. Politics shouldn’t get involved in sports. If a country is responsible for its actions then some precautions should be taken in political arena, but as China is one of 5 players of UN Security Council, it seems as a solutionless problem.

  21. #21 Enigma
    April 9, 2008

    I am a Chinese student and I read a lot of reports about boycotting China’s Olympic game. I feel really sad about that, because Beijing’s Olympic game is not just a game, it is an invitation from all Chinese people. Our Chinese people invite you to China without any political purpose.

    You may not be able to listen to our voice now, because you think we are all brain-washed. So you can find the truth your-self, I mean, with your own eyes, neither believing to our media nor yours. So just come to China, to Beijing, you will know everything.

  22. #22 Enigma
    April 9, 2008

    If you want to talk with more Chinese people, you can access this website:
    http://bbs.chinadaily.com.cn/index.php
    Please listen to our voice. Thank you very much.

  23. #23 etbnc
    April 9, 2008

    I see lots of interesting comments that reflect different aspects of the situation. To consider all of those aspects, I find it helpful to think about a related question, along the lines of,

    How might the attention that goes with Olympic sports also benefit people beyond the event itself?

    Cheers

  24. #24 stream
    April 9, 2008

    I object to one statement in your essay fairly strongly:

    “That is different from objecting to the internal politics of the host country.”

    Tibet does not consider herself to be part of China. So this is NOT an issue of ‘internal politics’. It is an issue of a large country dominating a smaller one. Imperialism.

    Posted by: Helen | March 29, 2008 5:32 PM

    I don’t know what your comment is based on. Do you know how large the population in Tibet is? And do you know how many people there do not consider themselves Chinese? Do you know the history of Tibet? I guess you don’t. Then go and learn more!! DO NOT BELIEVE THE MEDIA!!

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