The news that the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, is not attending the Olympic Games is a reminder that there is a lot more to boycotts than governments telling athletes they can’t go.
According to the report, the Prime Minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, and the Czech President Vaclav Klaus, have also stated they will not attend the Opening Ceremony. Germany’s Foreign Minister and Sports Mininster are also not attending.
“The presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate,” Tusk said. “I do not intend to take part.”
Reports have also started to appear of torch bearers in the Olympic relay in various places pulling out or considering doing so. (UPDATE: 4/4 – the captain of India’s national football team, Bhaichung Bhutia, is reported to have refused to carry the Olympic torch during its planned procession through Delhi later this month).
Steven Speilberg’s decision to pull out of his role is another high-profile example of a non-athlete taking action.
Most of us have the capacity to put pressure on some of the companies who are seeking to profit from the Olympics, whether it be corporations like Coca-Cola, MacDonald’s or General Electric, or media organisations, to take a public position in support of the human rights of the people in China.
Even if it involves speaking out, rather than just not engaging, it can all make an impact. A month or so ago, I participated in a segment on Kerri-Anne Kennerley’s morning TV show discussing this issue. It was promoted in part by a cover story on a sports magazine, titled 20 Reasons We Should Boycott the Olympics. (This was all well before the latest Tibet crisis blew up). I was accompanied by a sports journalist and a former Olympian, both of who not surprisingly were against a boycott. Interestingly, the former Olympian, Nicole Livingstone, used the example of the Black Power salute on the medal dais by two US athletes as an example of the positive impact athletes can make by using their position to speak out on injustice, rather than just not attending. To me, a boycott is not just about ‘to go or not to go’ – it is about looking for ways to increase awareness about serious human rights abuses in a way that will increase effective pressure for positive change. There are many different ways to do this – speaking out is one of them. I don’t mind greatly what method people choose.
I know it’s a difficult issue and boycotts are a blunt instrument, but I also don’t think it’s good enough to suggest it has nothing to do with us, or there’s nothing we can do, or just dismiss the issue with shallow platitudes like “sport and politics shouldn’t mix”. Sport and politics often mix, and few places more so than the Olympics. The Berlin Games under Nazi Germany in 1936 is not an unreasonable example to examine. This Games is where the modern Olympic torch relay was first used.
Even though I believe people should give serious consideration to boycotting or disengaging from aspects of the Beijing Games due to the atrocious human rights record of the Chinese government (and the fact that this human rights performance has not improved significantly since the games were awarded to Beijing), I don’t think people should simply be told they can’t go.
The Olympics is about people, not governments. I don’t expect the IOC to lead the charge on international political issues either – it’s not their role. Although I do think they do have to ask themselves exactly how much weight their “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” are meant to have, given it includes principles such as:
• Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.
• The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity
• Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement