The Olympics and politics in sports
Recently, in various parts of the world, most notably in San Francisco, there have been protests related to China’s role as host of the 2008 Olympics. Protesters have expressed their objection to China’s oppression of Tibet and also to China’s dismal record on human rights in general, and they have advocated boycotting the Olympics, or at the very least, the opening ceremonies. These protesters have also disrupted the ceremonial running of the Olympic torch. In San Francisco, ceremonies were cancelled and the torch was rerouted to evade the protests, disappointing spectators who had hoped to catch at least a glimpse of the torch run.
But there is a big question of whether protests at major sports events such as the Olympics have any effect at all on how a nation conducts its business. What good does a boycott really do? The Dalai Lama himself has said that boycotting the Olympics over the treatment of Tibet is an inappropriate action; those who seek to help Tibet should seek more meaningful protests.
In 1980, the United States boycotted the Olympics, which were held in Moscow, as a protest against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and many other countries and individual athletes chose to join the boycott. In 1984, the Soviets chose to boycott the Olympics in Los Angeles.
The reason for these boycotts seemed to me to be especially petty: “I don’t like you, so I’m taking my marbles and going home.” It was awful for a sports celebration of the very best of human achievement to be degraded by a childish temper tantrum.
On a very basic level, these boycotts harmed the athletes. I have a friend who could very well have won a gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, but because of the boycott, he never got a chance to compete. But it’s not just the athletes who didn’t show up who suffered. The accomplishments of the athletes who did compete will always be questioned, since half of their usual competition didn’t show up. Even though Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz set a world record, how can he know whether he really was the best pole-vaulter in the world?
But the real impact of a boycott goes far beyond the individual athlete. In terms of national pride, far more is to be gained by showing up than by sulking at home. Consider the 1936 Olympics, in Berlin. Hitler’s Nazi regime was on the rise, and Germany wasn’t exactly a friendly place. But back then, national pride dictated that we participate in the games, and that we show our sportsmanship by rising above petty nationalism. The whole idea of a boycott probably never occurred to the people who organized our Olympic team.
We set the note during the opening ceremonies, when we refused to dip our flag to Hitler when we passed the reviewing stand. Then we really stuck it to Hitler and his ideas of white Aryan supremacy when the African-American Jesse Owens went on to win four gold medals. We would never have experienced such a shining moment if we had refused to show up.
While the Olympic Games have lost something of the luster that they used to have, they still represent (or at least try to represent) the best of the human spirit. That spirit includes a certain level of dignity, and a certain level of sportsmanship. We have far more to gain by participating than by sulking at home like spoiled children.