Should Western Countries Boycott the Beijing Olympics?
In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There was a diplomatic cry among western nations, which the Soviet Union ignored. The cold war was on in earnest and neither side was willing to give way. Even worse for countries such as the United States and their allies the Olympic Games were due to be held in Moscow in 1980. If there wasn't a resolution of the crisis by then action would have to be taken.
The Soviets refused to withdraw from Afghanistan, and as the Olympics approached, the United States withdrew their team and over 50 countries followed suit. This was not the first boycott of the Olympic games due to political reasons, and it would not the the last.
The question is: Did these boycotts achieve their goal, and did they end up punishing the right people? This alone should give us some perspective on whether or not a boycott would have the desired effect on China and change its actions in Tibet.
Nadia Comaneci 1976 Olympics - A perfect 10 score
- On this day
A rundown of the boycott of the 1976 Olympic Games by African Nations.
Which Olympics have been Boycotted and Why
1976 Summer Olympics - Montreal
The first major boycott of an Olympics was the Montreal games. This was the only major boycott which had nothing to do with the actions of the host country. This boycott was by African nations and centred around a Rugby Union tour taking place in South Africa. The focus on New Zealand's All Blacks Team was largely symbolic, but moreso because the tour was taking place at the same time the games were being held.
South Africa had been under a sporting boycott for years due to the apartheid regime, but this didn't stop rebel tours from happening. The All Blacks were on a rebel tour at the time the games were due to open. Kenya led the charge, calling for New Zealand to be barred from competing as the action of their rugby team showed that they supported the racist regime. New Zealand protested, pointing out that the governing body for Rugby Union in New Zealand was independent and not answerable to the government.
The IOC did not ban New Zealand, and they competed in the games. Most of the African nations did not. In all over 20 countries and 440 athletes withdrew from the games in protest to New Zealand's participation.
Moscow 1980 - Part of the Opening Ceremony
1980 Summer Olympics - Moscow
In 1979, as previously mentioned, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. The invasion created a flurry of diplomatic activity, with calls in the UN for the Soviets to withdraw. They did not, and reports coming back to the west told of the brutal suppression of the Afghans, and of the continuing war in the country as factions continued to fight the invaders. There was talk of massacres, but the news was sketchy.
The United States was the loudest in their condemnation of the invasion. The military activity dragged on as the Olympics drew closer, and the US put forth an ultimation: withdraw or we'll boycott. They did not withdraw, and so the US did, and took over 50 nations with them.
The Olympics went on, albeit with competition reduced. The Soviet Union would have its revenge four years later when the Olympic flame was lit once more in Los Angeles.
The Olympic Hymn and Flag Raising Los Angeles - 1984
1984 Summer Olympics - Los Angeles
In 1984 the Olympics went to the other big player in the cold war - the United States. Four years previously they had led a boycott which had damaged the Olympic games in Moscow. The reaction was almost inevitable. It seemed that just as there was a nuclear stand-off, there was an Olympic stand off.
The Russians cited security concerns for not attending the Games. To them, at the time, it may have even been a real concern. The official line was that there was such an irrational hatred of communism in the US that their athletes would not be safe, and so they and the majority of the Eastern Bloc stayed home. The only hold out to appear, at the "Friendship Games" was Romania.
As with the Moscow games not all athletes competed on the field of sport, and competition was reduced. The games were not all they could have been.
Who Won and Who Lost Because of the Boycotts?
This is the big question. In each case there was a concern, and in all cases the boycotts were to spread a political message about the games, or about the actions of a host country. The boycotts were politically motivated, and they did highlight the issue at the time, although they did not necessarily change the day to day reality of the event.
The big losers were the athletes, who had trained for years to go to the Olympics and found out just before the events that they would be unable to compete. In many cases, due to the nature of their sport, they would not have another chance. Perhaps if they'd had a say in the boycotts history would have been written a little differently.
The Politicization of the Olympic Games
The Olympic ideal has always been about the peaceful participation of all countries in sport. On the field, at least, politics would seem to play no part. In all of this it is very easy to forget the role that governments play in the Olympics and that in its own way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a political body itself.
The Olympics are funded with a combination of public funds, usually tax revenue and private funds provided by sponsors. Each of these bodies wants to have a say about how this money is spent. They want value for their investment. Who doesn't? Because tax revenue is used to fund the games, and most Organising Committees are government based, the hosting of the Olympics is a political affair. The point scoring does not just happen on the field of play.
The IOC overlooks the organization of the games, and in doing so they have to play the political game to an extent. Otherwise the Olympics would never be held. The other area where the IOC plays politics is in deciding which countries can compete. Political strife can lead to a country being banned, such as South Africa was for many years. There are other reasons, besides, for countries not being allowed to compete. These are political decisions on the part of the IOC, and their charter helps push the decisions along.
Whether or not we want to accept it, in the case of the Olympic Games, sport and politics mix and overlap. It's no wonder the Games is, well, fair game for a protest, boycott, or for other political games. It's a way to get your message to the world at lightning speed. After all, the world's media will be there in force, so why not use the situation to your advantage?
Did You Know?
Only five countries have attended every Summer Games held. They are:
- Great Britain
Of all of these countries only one has won a gold medal at every one of the Games: Great Britain.
Today and China and the Olympics.
Tibet is a symptom of a much larger problem in China, and that is the suppression of minorities. World reaction to the suppression of protests in Tibet is unsurprising. That most Chinese aren't even aware of what is happening in Tibet is really a given, considering the suppression of the media in China. The restrictions on travel applied to ordinary citizens ensures that word of mouth is not likely to spread unflattering versions of the brutality in Tibet and elsewhere in China.
Regardless of what you see in the media about China, there are many places that westerners are not allowed to enter without escort, and what you see is what the communist government wants you to see.
This was a problem before Beijing was even granted the Olympic Games. It was one of the burning questions about their bid. Regardless of it they were granted the games.
The brutality in Tibet should never have happened.
The question that has to be asked is: Will boycotting the Olympic Games change anything?
The sad truth is most probably not. Brutal regimes are more likely to be overthrown from within rather than from the outside. Both communism in Russia and Apartheid in South Africa, which were the focus of two boycotts were not actually changed because of those boycotts. While it may have made the governments of the boycotting countries feel as though they were doing something, even if it was only point scoring, in reality it was toothless protest.
As stated before the people that lose in a wholesale action are the athletes, and they are the people who should decide whether or not they wish to compete in China. They are the people who should be approached with all the arguments for and against competing. On the whole, it would have much more impact than governments leading the charge.
Should Western Countries boycott the Beijing Games? No. Having individual, especially high profile athletes do it because of their own convictions, would have much more impact.