With the Beijing Summer Olympics coming in less than six months and the recent unrest in Tibet over the Chinese government’s anti-democratic, imperialist, human rights-abusing ways in that fabled region, I think it’s important to state, for the record, where I’m at when it comes to a potential boycott of the Games by various Western nations over China’s human rights record.
First off, full disclosure: I have never supported China hosting the Olympics, mostly because I worked as a volunteer for the Toronto 2008 bid and I felt, in order for the Games to stay relevant into the 21st century, the event should reflect the virtues of democratic action first and foremost. Sure, there have been several Olympics over the past century that have taken place in decidedly non-democratic nations, like Nazi Germany in the 1936 Games where U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens ripped apart Hitler’s absurd, grotesque theories on racial superiority, or the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
Remember Juan Antonio Samaranch? Well, as much as no one seems to find it creepy that a former minister in General Franco’s fascist dictatorship of Spain happened to rise to the top of the amateur sporting world’s sweetest plum, it’s hardly a statement against non-democracies to have someone like him as a former I.O.C. President, eh?
Moreover, it’s kind of naive to think the I.O.C. – which is largely full of long-time autocrats, corporate czars and plutocrats – even cares about the notion of supporting democracy as part of the Olympic Movement’s essential characteristics. Naturally, the choice of Beijing was entirely political and motivated by expanding the Olympic Brand into an monolithic, huge untapped market like China. That’s all it was, plain and simple. Money ruled that bid, not the quality of the bid.
No one can tell me that Beijing’s bid was technically better than what Paris or Toronto could have offered, nor can any claims be made (even by Jacques Rogge) Beijing will offer athletes a clean, safe, breathable environment in a country built on humidex levels that makes Toronto seem like a dry heat in July. How do the Beijing officials expect to run the marathons in downtown Beijing with pollution levels so high? Are they planning to install oxygen tents? But that’s ancient history now and I digress.
Bottom line: boycotting the Olympics by countries like France and the U.S. would be very unwise for these countries, mostly because we’ve discovered how incredibly unproductive boycotts actually are when it comes to first-tier powers like China. Unlike, say, South Africa, where banning apartheid-era SF actually did cause progress against the racist policies of that nation, China will not change on the basis of these countries not attending. This is China’s Great Coming Out Party, the Summer Games. Fact is, if China wasn’t capable of embracing pro-democracy movements after what happened in 1989, then violent unrest in Tibet won’t do much either.
Plus, in reality, who gets hurt by a boycott? The athletes. So many great athletes were denied the opportunity to compete in the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 Los Angeles Games because of national boycotts for no reason other than pure Cold War posturing.
But… and this is a big but… it’s important for Western nations to set a firm example that China’s human rights abuses can’t go unnoticed. I’m completely in favour of the idea rumoured to be circulated around regarding Nicolas Sarkozy potentially missing the opening ceremonies, as well as U.K. PM Gordon Brown only attending the closing ceremonies.
Maybe, just maybe, this might be a chance for the Olympics and democratic nations to make a firm statement against China’s policies. Any foreign politicians should avoid the opening ceremony and maybe even the closing ceremonies.