Monday, March 24, 2008

Olympics: Total boycott not the solution

I know I've written extensively before about the problems with the 2008 Olympics, but Jack Todd's column in today's Montreal Gazette begs to be addressed. I actually agree with a fair bit of what Todd wrote, which is somewhat rare: he's a skilled writer and he defends his arguments well, but his views on sports are usually a good distance from my own. We draw similar conclusions for drastically different reasons though, and in the end, he goes much farther than I would.

Todd starts off well, talking about how it's terribly disappointing that the IOC and the international community that so graciously awarded China these games as a "force for good" are now washing their hands of the whole bloody mess. "For shame. Under cover of darkness, China is once again inflicting untold horrors on Tibet while the rest of the world looks on, wringing its hands and doing little or nothing else to stop the killing," he writes. "Obviously, the IOC made a terrible, tragic mistake when it awarded the 2008 Olympics to Beijing in the first place, overlooking strong bids from Toronto and Istanbul: arguably the worst mistake since the 1936 Olympics went to Hitler's Germany."

I'm not entirely sure on that one. Yes, the "Nazi Olympics" were terrible, but there have been many others with problems, such as the 1968 Mexico City Olympics where over 200 student protesters were massacred by the army only 10 days before the opening ceremonies, or the 1980 Moscow Olympics, held shortly after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Olympics have frequently been given to countries with problematic human-rights records: this case is only the most recent in a long trend. Still, Todd makes the valuable point that awarding Beijing the games was a mistake.

Todd then brings in an interesting personal story. "I was in Moscow when the vote to award the 2008 Olympics to Beijing was taken in 2001," he writes. "The Chinese were doing their best to put on a smiling, friendly face. But when I saw Juan Antonio Samaranch and Henry Kissinger strolling away arm in arm after the vote, it set off alarm bells: those two are not exactly famous for their respect for human rights. The behaviour of 30 members of the Chinese delegation who bulled their way to the front of the customs line on the way out of Moscow confirmed my impression that Beijing had no business hosting an Olympics."

I'm not sure if this is sufficient grounds to condemn the Games on. Yes, Samaranch is a pretty terrible figure, who, among other things, was a member of Franco's fascist regime before he became a corrupt IOC head: I recommend reading Andrew Jennings' fine work The Lords of the Rings if you want more information on him. Kissinger's legacy is more debatable. The support of those two men and poor etiquette by Chinese delegates isn't the best reason to have sent the Olympics somewhere else: what about the human-rights record, the terrible pollution that caused world-record holder Halle Gebrselassie to pull out of this year's marathon, the allegations of organ-harvesting of Falun Gong practioners, the ongoing occupation of Tibet, and everything else? In my mind, those are better factors than if Samaranch and Kissinger like it. Still, even though Todd and I have different reasons, we reach the same conclusion: the Games should have been awarded elsewhere.

Todd then goes on to make the case that the situation continues to get worse. "What was ugly in 2001 is uglier now," he writes. "China in Tibet is the real China: bullying, menacing, threatening. Trying to demonize the Dalai Lama, making this man of peace out to be a terrorist in order to justify the mass slaughter that is going on in Tibet. Chinese authorities are so afraid of the scrutiny of the world that they now want to ban live broadcasts of the 2008 Olympics altogether. This is a government that knows it has something very large to hide and does not want the pitiless eye of the world's television cameras trained on the bloody manner in which those who hold power in China maintain their position."

I agree with most of that. Interestingly, I hadn't heard of this live broadcast ban until now. The only story I could find suggested this was only for Tiannamen Square, which is still severely problematic, but hardly the "ban altogether" Todd suggests. Perhaps he only read the headline ("China may ban live broadcasts during Games)? He's quite right about the absurdity of China suggesting the Dalai Lama's a terrorist though, and he makes some good points about how the government is nervous about the scrutiny they'll get: my column on the planned "press database" speaks to similar concerns raised long before the outbreak of violence in Tibet.

Todd then makes a good point on the economic factors involved, which is perhaps why Western outcry thus far has been muted. "Once upon a time, the nations of the so-called "free world" staunchly resisted Communist China," he wrote. "But now that a brutal communist dictatorship has morphed into a brutal capitalist dictatorship, the world has opened its arms to China or more specifically, to the clout of China's increasingly dominant economy. The EU, the U.S., Canada, Brazil, all increasingly dependent on trade with China to keep their economies afloat, are afraid to confront the Chinese for fear of harming economies which, in the case of the U.S. at least, are already on shaky ground." True enough: I can't find too many bones to pick with that one. In the end, that's why China will probably get away with doing whatever they want: the rest of the world needs them too much.

However, shortly after this is where Todd jumps the shark, going from a sound premise to an illogical conclusion. "In the Beijing Olympics, the world has a big stick to force the Chinese leadership to abandon its Dark Ages approach to Tibet and to its own people: A massive, worldwide boycott, led by the EU and North America, perhaps by the athletes themselves if IOC president Jacques Rogge lacks the courage to lead the way," he writes. "This time, if the boycott is big enough, it will work."

I strongly disagree. As shown by Moscow and Los Angeles, the only thing a boycott does is to let a lot of second-tier athletes come away with gold medals, ruin the careers of many talented athletes who have been training for years for this moment, and cause a drastic oversupply of "What If" books 10 years down the road. The West needs to protest, but a boycott of the games isn't the solution. Instead, I like the idea of athletes or countries boycotting the opening ceremonies (advanced by Reporters Without Borders and Hans-Gert Poettering, the president of the European Union Parliament). By the way, Reporters Without Borders should receive kudos for their protest at the torch-lighting ceremony: it's good to see a media advocacy group taking such a bold stand. Heads of state staying away from either the opening ceremonies or the entire games would also send a powerful message that China's actions are not acceptable without destroying athletes' careers.

In addition, it would be nice to see more athletes make use of the forum the Olympics provides them with after their events, like the courageous sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in Mexico. Even such an establishment figure as IOC head Jacques Rogge, who's busy conducting "silent diplomacy" (the title says it all) with Beijing has said athletes will be free to express themselves outside of Olympic venues. There are plenty of opportunities for countries, leaders and athletes to express their rightful dissatisfaction with China's policies, but a total boycott is not the right action to take.

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