Regular readers of The Beacon may be aware of my role as the volunteer Chairman of the US Olympic Sailing program. In addition, I will serve as Team Leader for our Olympic Sailing Team at the Olympic Games in August. This means I will attend the Games with our athletes, march with them in both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and be on hand every day during the competition to serve as a combination of administrator, cheerleader, friend and water boy.
Over the last several months, there has been much debate about whether certain countries, the US included, should boycott some part of the Games such as the Opening Ceremony or, more severely, boycott the Games entirely. I have spent a great deal of time considering the recent debates on China’s Tibet policy as well as their other economic and social policies, and I believe that boycotting the Games, whether partially or completely, is a terrible idea. I believe human rights matter, in China and everywhere else. I believe that the Chinese government should be pushed and prodded by the world to improve their record on a variety of issues. However, I also believe that the Olympic Games are exactly the wrong forum in which to effect political change.
History has shown that boycotts have had meaningful impact on one and only one group: the athletes who are not allowed to participate.
Consider these two Olympic events from 1980: President Carter’s decision to boycott the Summer Games in the former USSR due to, among other things, that country’s aggression in Afghanistan; and the US hockey team’s victory over the USSR at the Winter Games in Lake Placid. Which do you think had a greater impact on the way the Americans viewed themselves and their role in the world, and the way the rest of the world viewed the Soviet Union? I’ll take the hockey game. That game gave Americans confidence in themselves, and the Soviets’ veil of invincibility was pierced. The boycott achieved neither of those things… but it did cause a return-the-favor boycott by the Soviets in 1984, doing further harm to the Olympic Games and the athletes who were competing.
Is it important to make it clear to China that most of the civilized world does not endorse their conduct? Of course it is. But such communication should be sent through other channels. Change China’s favored-nation status. Reconsider their presence in the World Trade Organization. Force debate at the United Nations. There are plenty of opportunities to apply real pressure to any government whose policies are in conflict with the rest of the civilized world.
The Olympic Games will begin 94 days from the date of this writing. As we count down the days, let’s keep the focus where it belongs: on the athletes. We have legitimate issues to protest in China, and concerned governments and individuals should make their feelings known. But such opinions should be shared in a way that will not interfere with the greatest of sporting events. Instead, we should allow these world-class athletes to experience something they have sacrificed for and earned, and which many of us, myself included, have dreamed about for ourselves.
(If you would like to meet the athletes on the 2008 US Olympic and Paralympic Sailing Teams, please visit www.ussailing.org/olympics.)
Dean M. Brenner
May 6, 2008
> Beacon Issue – May 2008
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