As riots rage in Tibet, the call for boycotting the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing is becoming increasingly popular among politicians. Earlier this week, following German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy’s decisions to boycott, Sen. Hillary Clinton strongly urged President Bush to boycott the opening ceremony, since China failed to “live up to universal human aspirations… ideals that the Olympic games have come to represent.”
Given Clinton’s political shrewdness, it is evident that her speech is just one part of the same old Olympic card that she’s been playing in order to keep her human-rights image in line with the current state of events. Had she been genuinely concerned with the issue, she could have voiced the same objection when Beijing was running to host the Olympics seven years ago. Clinton’s voice aside, the real question the United States should consider is whether boycotting the Olympics might do more harm than good in serving the interests of America and the world it tries to lead.
The modern Olympics were founded by Pierre Fredy upon the idea that a “peaceful and better world” can be built through the help of “sport practiced without discrimination of any kind.” Being a dedicated educator, instead of a political activist, and certainly not a politician, Baron Fredy defined the goal of the Olympic Spirit as “to inspire and motivate the youth… through educational and entertaining interactive challenges.” He designed the Olympics as an educational opportunity that will celebrate human endeavor for excellence and mutual understanding, not as a political forum on which all the difficult international issues facing the world can — or should — be solved.
Baron Fredy wrote in the First Chapter of the Olympics Charter that the Games are “competitions between athletes in individual or team events, and not between countries.” Contrary to his ideal, unfortunately, most countries still consider hosting (and boycotting) the event as a way of showing off their various interpretations of what is and what is not worthy of support, a burden too heavy for Olympics to carry. But just because everyone else is against the true meanings of Olympics and politicizing the sporting gala as a fight against the evil, it doesn’t mean that the United States, and its Olympic foreign policy, should follow the model.
Given that the Games offer a rare opportunity to seize the spotlight and address important world issues, boycotting the event will produce very little, if any, positive result — as history repeatedly has proven. Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon did not help solve the Suez Crisis at all by boycotting the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The U.S.-led NATO countries’ boycott against the 1980 Moscow Olympics failed to persuade the “evil state” of the U.S.S.R. to back off, and only caused 15 Warsaw-pact nations to boycott the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles four years later. The only victims penalized were the innocent athletes whose entire careers culminate in the Games. It’s easy for the rest of us to sacrifice the life-long efforts of someone else to satisfy our desire to “speak up,” but it’s unfair for all those athletes, their coaches and their families to be forced to give up pursuing their dreams.
Admittedly, there is a huge disagreement between China and the United States on various matters, from human rights to Tibet. What we want, nevertheless, is not to embarrass China, but to develop a constructive relationship with that country. Filling the gap of mutual understanding requires something more than ad-hoc threats with an Olympic flag, and demands a serious forum of debate more appropriate than that of a sporting event. To provide for such occasions, we developed the mechanism of the United Nations, the annual Sino-US strategic dialogue and the annual Sino-EU human-rights dialogue, among others. These fora exist, and they are not meant to be replaced by the Olympics.
Remember, after all, that the two Koreas walked together, hand in hand, in the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics; they chose to leave their real debate where it belonged: in the rounds of the Six-Party talks. Perhaps the Korean example could inform our decisions henceforth.
Robert Li is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.