Reader Request Week 2008 #8: Politics and the Olympics

Ohako asks:

Are the Olympics purely a sports contest, or do international politics enter into the equation at some level? Should a country boycott the Olympics because China is mean to Tibet?

Clearly international politics enter into the equation, and have for some time. In 1976 a bunch of African countries boycotted the Olympics to protest New Zealand’s participation (New Zealand played competitive sports with South Africa, which was under apartheid at the time); in 1980 the US and several dozen other countries boycotted the Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; in 1984 the USSR and some of its client states boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles because apparently the USSR thought the US was a big meanie. So it goes.

Should a country boycott the Olympics in Beijing because China oppresses Tibet and/or its own people? Sure; I think if you’re going to have a boycott, that’s a perfectly valid reason to do so. Should a country be obliged to boycott the Olympics for those reasons? No, because any savvy country could reel off good realpolitik reasons to engage China via the Olympics. Whether one feels those reasons hold water is another question altogether, mind you. But we all do what we do to get through the night.

I’m irritated with the IOC about this year’s Olympics mostly because I’m flummoxed how they couldn’t see all this coming. What? Give an autocratic government an Olympics and suddenly everyone’s up in arms about its human rights abuses? Who knew that could happen?!? Yes, well. Surprise, assholes. I suppose the thinking here was that giving the Olympics to Beijing would spur the country into being friendly and open and whatnot, but if China were a person, it would be a type-A controlling paranoid with a handgun and a tendency to blame “enemies” when under stress. Enemies like, you know, the dog and five-year-old. I do believe that China should be encouraged to see the benefits of being more politically free, and as it happens I do believe that engagement with the country should happen. Like Nixon, I would go to China. However, I don’t think giving Beijing a tight summer 2008 deadline to build billions of dollars worth of construction, clean up the chewy particulate soup that is Beijing’s air, and prepare its country for the harsh critical gaze of every other country in the world was really the smartest way to do that. I could be wrong here; I don’t pretend to be an expert on China. But on this end of things, it certainly does look like they’re getting a little implody.

That said, I would like to hope that someone sits China down, gives it a reassuring hug to let it know it’s all going to be okay, and talks it off that ledge it’s on, so it can focus on finishing up its Olympic plans without crushing all those who oppose it, and so the athletes who come to visit during the summer don’t feel like they now have an inkling what it was like to compete in the 1936 Summer Olympics. I would like China to succeed, and for the Olympics to actually be a sporting event, not a political football. We’ll see if that happens.

(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)

27 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2008 #8: Politics and the Olympics

  1. Personally, I like the Olympics, it’s about the only sports I watch. Once every two years, counting the winter events, is enough for me. I’d hate to see athletes that have been prepping all their life lose an opportunity for the world stage.

    What we need, though, is journalists prepared to tell it like they see it. Pollution? Report on it. Environmental damage? Low wages? Overcrowding?Report on it.

    Human rights abuses? They won’t see anything happen, probably not a good idea to go looking for them, but a nice protest rally by the locals is always a good lead.

    To boycott it would be like closing our eyes, covering our ears and going “la la la can’t hear you la la la” for the majority of the western world. Sure the leaders of our countries will be making a point, but the billions of people who won’t see the events will lose the point of it all.

    That’s what we need. And more coverage of Fencing.

  2. I’m no fan of Beijing, but we were family friends with a fellow who won two Silvers in swimming at 1976 Montreal and was in good shape to win gold at 1980 Moscow. That boycott really sucked on those grounds. Great guy and the son of the least-sports-pushy parents I’ve ever seen (that is, of those who had a kid with any serious talent). Yes, of course Chinese human rights are infinitely more important than all that, but boycotts don’t change much unless they’re comprehensive, and there’s plenty o’ downside for the folks it directly impacts.

  3. I completely understand the urge to boycott an Olympics, but I’m against it anyway. The original Olympics were meant to be played by people who were actually at war with each other. They were meant as a brief cease-fire aimed at showing how peaceful competition could trump the biggest animosities. The spirit of the Olympics is supposed to be about putting aside differences.

    It’s not about saying the differences don’t exist. It’s about saying that for this brief period, we’re going to ignore our differences and remind ourselves that we all have more in common than what separates us.

    (end pompous lecturing)

  4. I’m not exactly a political junkie, so I’m at a bit of a loss as to what China is trying to prove. I’ve not got my head stuck in the sand, however: I know about China’s human rights abuses, massive pollution, destruction of the environment and irreplacable archeological artifacts (the Three Gorges Dam project), all-around jerk-waddery, etc…

    All that being said, I can’t help but think we need a Jesse Owens for these Olympics. I wasn’t around in the 1930′s, so I don’t know if Mr. Owens was expected to embarass the Nazis the way he did in 1936…but embarass the Master Race he did, and it was fantastic.

    Somehow, somewhere, we need a Jesse Owens. He or she doesn’t have to be an American, obviously, but an athlete who beats China at their own game.

  5. The IOC has long been a bunch of hypocritical, elitist asswipes. Awarding the Olympics has turned into its own Olympic event: the twenty year butt-kiss-and-crawl. BTW, I’m still annoyed at how the news coverage of the SLC bribery scandal played out. Granted, SLC shouldn’t have been playing the game, but the IOC had been blatantly encouranging the bribes from ALL the countries participating. When all the rival cities turned on Salt Lake City, and when people were threatening to take away the Olympics, I kept wondering, “Yeah, but where are you going to find a city that HASN’T bribed the IOC?” I’m not surprised they awarded the Olympics to China.

    I’m not going to be watching the Olympics myself, and I’d support a boycott of these Olympics. (I’d also understand if we had the Olympics and countries wanted to boycott us.)

    For the individual athletes, it must be terribly disappointing–particularly as the Olympics being four years apart, you really only have a small window to make it there during your peak performance years.

  6. it would be a type-A controlling paranoid with a handgun and a tendency to blame “enemies” when under stress.

    I think the exact term you are looking for is “authoritarian” which I will admit is my flavor of the month because of a great book I am now reading but will pimp at the pimp-offering.

    One of my most vivid bad Olympic memories was the killings at the ’72 games in Munich. Terrorists killing Israeli’s. Awful.

    Some trivia – I shot put, discus and javelin at the State Games of America every year and my son did a report on shot put once. He cited the Olympic shot put records and throws and wondered why they peaked in the late 70′s I think. We had a good discussion on steroids and why they were banned. The records clearly show when athletes stopped using them or at least became more clever at hiding their use.

  7. FWIW a friend of mine arranges VIP hospitality etc. at major sporting events such as the olympics and the (soccer) world cup. She reports that less than half the expected number of foreign dignitaries are planning to attend. I’m not sure if the games are going to be boycotted or not by countries but it certainly looks like they are being shunned when it comes to the various sporting and other celebs who would normally show up.

    I have also heard (but with less certainty of its truth) that the Beijing hotels have helped reduce attendance by blatantly ripping off would be attendees. To the extent that people who might otherwise attend are deciding that they have something better to blow their money on. Expect lots of bussed in locals to make sure the stadia look packed.

  8. Boycotting may make you feel all proud about standing up for your values, but it will not make China mend its ways. (Did USSR get out of Afghanistan in 1980? Exactly!) The only thing boycotting will accomplish is to make it easier for Chinese to earn more medals – and then to crow about its successes. That’s what Moscow did in 1980 – believe me, I was personally a “beneficiary” of the increase in the national pride…

    While we keep rushing into Chinese markets to earn untold profits every which way, boycotting Olympics is nothing but an empty petulant gesture that will not accomplish anything, except possibly making China more belligerent…

  9. Have to rephrase my last statement, lest someone interpret it as “let’s not offend the bully” type of thing…

    Until we stop rushing into Chinese markets [...]

  10. I’m for the boycott. Not only is China pretty bad when it comes to human rights, but prepeation for the Games has actually made things worse. The Chinese Govt has been bulldozing peoples houses to clean up the city and build the new structures.
    They are setting up unrestricted internet access for the visitors, even though they massively censor there own people in the hope that western journalists will say “This isn’t so bad”.
    I like the “idea” of the Olympics, but there is no way I can support them this year.

  11. As John said: SHOCK! The Chinese government doesn’t give a crap about human rights, we couldn’t see that coming. That, of course, is not the end of the story. Having awarded the Olympics to Beijing, it would be the height of hypocrisy to take it away from them for doing what they’ve been doing for the last 50 years. If China’s human rights abuses are unacceptable, they should never have been awared to China in the first place. This Tibet thing is miniscule compared to some of the stuff they’ve done and continue to do. But somehow Tibet is a sexier cause celebre, possibly because the Dalai Lama is pretty much a celebrity.

    In short: Maybe they shouldn’t have got the Olympics in the first place, but now that they have them it would be dumb to take them away now, and needlessly punish the althletes. Boycott the opening ceremony if you like, world leaders (Well done the new Polish head of state for being the first to do that), but don’t ruin a sporting event because you only just now have the balls to get annoyed about long-standing Chinese government policy.

  12. Those interested in reasons to boycott may also want to consider that the IOC has been trying to control how athletes behave. I wrote a post on the topic here
    http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2008/02/no_politics_in.html

    In short, Britain started to require that athletes not make political statements. I compared that to the Mexico Olympics and Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s raising of their fists.

    In addition the IOC is trying to control athlete’s blog habits. http://www.concurringopinions.com/archives/2008/02/more_restrictio_1.html

  13. You write:

    I don’t think giving Beijing a tight summer 2008 deadline to build billions of dollars worth of construction, clean up the chewy particulate soup that is Beijing’s air, and prepare its country for the harsh critical gaze of every other country in the world was really the smartest way to do that.

    …But the Chinese gave themselves that deadline. Seems like a hell of a gamble to me.

    A point made on several Websites is that the Western states fairly pissed all over China for upwards of a century. I don’t doubt for a second that a pillar of China’s attitude is ‘screw you, our problems are partly of your creation.’ And I have every reason to expect that any Western media outlet brave enough to criticize the way the Chinese are doing things will be met with a strident ‘fine, think you could do any better?’

    Under the circumstances, they might just have a point.

    (…Which I hate to admit, because I’m no fan of the Chinese Communist government, a position which has very little to do with their position on human rights.)

  14. I want to be in favor of a boycott. I don’t want to see China welcomed into the happy world community on the basis of history’s biggest Potemkin Village.

    The IOC’s position is meaningless, because they’ve painted themselves into a corner. It’s one thing to ban South Africa over apartheid – and the sporting sanctions did help – but you can’t ban a country over human rights when you’ve already given them the Games.

    There is one very strong argument against a boycott, though. There are a lot of Chinese dissidents – men that are in prison because of their protests against the government – who do not want a boycott. They want the world to come to China, because they don’t believe the government can keep up a happy facade when they are hosting thousands of athletes and hundreds of thousands of journalists.

    I suppose the debate is similar to the debate over prison. A massive boycott would certainly be a massive punishment for China, but would it do anything to rehabilitate them? If you believe that the government would say “OK, we need to clean up our act or we’re never going to get full membership in the world community”, then a boycott is a great idea.

    On the other hand, being snubbed could push them back behind the wall. If they feel that they have no incentive left to change, things could get incredibly ugly. An angry China can cause enormous damage, not just to human rights, but to the global economy and to the environment.

    Do we use the carrot or the stick?

  15. One of the reasons I’m more or less for it is because with 15,000 foreign journalists roaming around, China’s going to get some interesting coverage, whether they think they can control it or not. (Like the recent press thing in Tibet, where the monks came out of the woodwork and demonstrated that, free press or not, if you’ve got guts, you can speak to the world).

    On the other hand, I think the IOC was pretty freakin’ stupid that they didn’t see this coming from the instant they agreed to it. Everybody else did.

  16. I was watching a news show from PRC a couple of weeks ago, and they had a big special on some Italian Olympic has-been who sits on the IOC. I immediately thought “this must be the dweeb they bribed to get the Olympics held in a city with air you can cut with a knife and serve like soot-flavored cake”.

    The Olympics are a sports event. There are lots of places in China with cleaner air, and athletic performace should have been apramount in picking the site. But the political statement of having the games in the capital was too much for the PRC to pass up.

  17. I admit I’m conflicted on this. It does give the impression that the world is ok with China’s behavior, and we’re quite happy to ignore it. Of course, we do that every day, particularly in our trade policies. A boycott might demonstrate that we actually aren’t ok with it.

    On the other hand, it’s really not fair to the athletes who have dedicated their lives to their sport, and waited for years…and then there’s a boycott. For some, that destroys their only chance at gold. They’ll be too old for the next Olympics.

    And I like the idea of “friendly competition despite our nations’ differences”, whether it really exists or not.

    Overall, I’m leaning towards not boycotting the games. Because it really looks like it will be the Nazi Olympics all over again. The overly confident hosts, determined to show the world their inherent superiority and how perfect their system is, and instead demonstrating something completely different.

  18. I didn’t want China to get the Olympics for just those reasons.

    But that said, we should focus on the human triumph that is the Olympics. The Olympics are a glorious event that showcases all the best about humanity,

    As for a boycott, there is no way the US would do it. It isn’t that we buy billions of dollars of cheap stuff from China a year, it’s because China holds so much of the debt that is keeping the US afloat. Without Chin buying up our debt, we’d have a much harder time financing things like BearStearns bail outs and $600 tax rebaet checks.

  19. I really like the idea of boycotting the opening ceremonies. (I suppose the athletes could take the Olympic Oath elsewhere.)

    We skip the bit that’s all about glorifying China; the countries that want to can express their disapproval; the athletes, however, still compete. This seems like a polite way of registering dissent that doesn’t screw over people who have worked extremely hard to be at the top of their field and would like to change to prove it.

    Yes, skipping the opening ceremony is a symbolic protest, but I don’t think it’s any less symbolic than skipping the Olympics entirely. It’s not as if after a certain number of countries skip the Olympics, China will suddenly respect basic human rights. Also, I agree with John’s characterization of China. The Chinese government will not take the right message from a total boycott. The symbolic skipping of the opening ceremony has a better chance of not pissing them off so completely that they never comport themselves like a truly civilized government.

    (Of course, now that the US tortures, it’s questionable how the American government comports itself. This was all much easier when Americans were the white hats. Or at least not so blatantly black hat.)

  20. The boycott question would be a moot point if the IOC would pick a permanent location for the Olympics and stick with it. I have always favored having the summer Olympics in Greece. That’s where it began.
    Let countries take turns hosting it.

  21. I’ve been boycotting the Olympics for years, and I try to avoid buying any product with Olympic promotional logos. Organized sports in general are part of what is wrong with the world today and are part of what grossly skewed and warp the priorities of the marching moron general public. Given all the real problems in the world the billions wasted on training athletes and staging the Olympics is an inexcusable waste of resources.

    The only reason I’m happy to see the Olympics in Beijing is that the region were I live was one of the areas that considered submitting a bid to host the 2008 games. I can’t even imagined the horror that would have been.

  22. I forgot to add, if you really want to punish the Chinese wouldn’t it be better to just stop shopping at Wal-Mart?

  23. @Nathan #3:

    It’s not about saying the differences don’t exist. It’s about saying that for this brief period, we’re going to ignore our differences and remind ourselves that we all have more in common than what separates us.

    (end pompous lecturing)

    Nathan, if that was pompous lecturing, this world needs more of it. Sign me up for a couple bunchteen dozen pallets’ worth.

    @Ken S #23:
    A fine idea… but perhaps we ought to ask the Grecian Powers That Be if they *wish* to be inundated by foreign hosts on a scheduled basis. If not, the IOC ought to respect their wish, as crazy as that might sound.

    @Victor #4:

    All that being said, I can’t help but think we need a Jesse Owens for these Olympics.

    Amen. If Jesse Owens are in short supply — and lamentably, they are — then perhaps it would suffice for someone with a little class to appear before the world and remind it what the Olympic competition means…

    …and vóila, this comment returns to Nathan.

  24. Wake up people! China is the completely wrong country to be holding the Olympics. If they can’t even handle the well being of their citizens what makes everyone think that they can handle the Olympics and the well being of their citizens.
    I find it ironic that one of China’s own olympic cahmpions will not be participating in ther Olypmics because of the fact that he has asthma and because of the situation of China’s atmosphere.
    Let’s just hope that our athletes are smart enought to bring their own water. And possibly their own food.
    China is defintely not a country know for its cleanliness.

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