An Olympic reflection: Protests were of minimal influence

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In the months leading up to, during, and immediately following the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was perhaps difficult to distinguish the athletes from the dissidents, the sports from the politics, the pageant from the protestors. Both the gripping sporting events and the political debate have subsided since then, and thus it is easier to stand back and see that the raucous voices of dissidence and discordant cries for boycott were largely ineffective and unnecessary.

Historically, it is hard to deny the association of politics and the Olympics, and it is also hard to deny the political weight carried by the country hosting the games. At its very root, however, the games are not necessarily supposed to overcome but be able to see beyond dividing measures; they are, after all, a coming together of peoples from all over the world, competing harmoniously in sportsmanship.

History generally reflects that trend, but it is undeniable that protests have erupted over the years and that the Olympics have unfortunately been used as center stage. In 1956, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Spain boycotted the games in Melbourne, Australia, to protest the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian uprising. Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon also boycotted to protest the Suez Canal crisis. Since the medal hopes of these countries were few, these boycotts had little impact upon the games themselves.

The Cold War had its own realm of political friction. More than 20 African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest of the New Zealand rugby team going to play in apartheid-dominated South Africa. The most prominent of Cold War-influenced boycotts is probably the decision of President Jimmy Carter to keep U.S. athletes home from the 1980 Moscow Games following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets prominently repaid the United States in 1984, when they and several Eastern European nations boycotted the Los Angeles Games.

These back-and-forth measures did nothing but unnecessarily exacerbate United States-Soviet tensions. The boycotts, and in turn Cold War politics, should have been unrelated to the dreams and ambitions of both U.S. and Soviet athletes who reached their peak in those years. They were denied a chance to compete, not based on their athletic ability, but on the political and social grudges held by their respective nations.

The last Cold War-era Olympics was in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Ethiopia stayed home. The Olympics since then have been boycott-free, which questions the legitimacy of those who urged boycotts of this year’s games in Beijing. Boycotts are empty gestures. Boycotts do nothing more than take away the chances of deserving athletes and weaken the credibility of governments.

For those still unconvinced that sports and politics are separate entities in reality, perhaps we can all learn from Jesse Owens that ambition speaks louder than hatred. As a black man in an Aryan-supremacist land, Owens led the United States Olympic team to the 1936 Hitler-dominated Berlin Olympics and won four gold medals, a most powerful and eloquent statement.

I do recognize the horrors of recent human rights abuses, and I do agree that certain actions taken by the Chinese government in those regards were wrong.

However, I do not believe that boycotting an event intended to promote sportsmanship and well-meaning competition is the answer to promoting awareness and an end to these horrific measures. For much of last year, activist groups have labeled the 2008 Beijing Games the “Genocide Olympics,” a title undeserved by the hundreds of thousands of organizers and athletes.
It is unfair to mar sports with politics, but if the grandeur of the opening and closing ceremonies demonstrated anything, it was that Olympic organizers were determined to present a pageantry of history and hope, to show through art and dance that China was ready to host such a momentous event, ready to present itself to the 21st-century world, and ready to do so without being tainted by remonstrance.