Olympic Choices

July 28, 2008

Olympic Choices

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has backed down from an earlier pledge to boycott the Beijing Olympics. And with good reason—it’s too late now for that to change much of anything for the better.

Plans for an Olympic protest suffered fatal damage when French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that he planned to attend the games in Beijing. He had previously hinted that he might stay away to protest the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, but ended up following the example of President George W. Bush, who never took boycott proposals seriously.

Actually, Sarkozy's decision is a double blow: he will be attending both as president of the European Union and president of France. Ironically, his temporizing-he had said his decision would be based on the progress of talks between representatives of the People's Republic of China and the Dalai Lama-means he is not likely to be well-received in Beijing. The Communist Party's People's Daily complained that his "wavering attitude on whether he will attend the Olympics opening ceremony has already hurt the feelings of the Chinese people." An online poll run by the Chinese website sina.com reported that nearly 90 percent of those responding said he was not welcome. The results may be skewed, but nevertheless probably reflect broadly held nationalist sentiments.

A number of national leaders, including Britain's Gordon Brown and Germany's Angela Merkel, plan to skip the opening ceremony. But, complains the group Reporters Without Borders, the U.S. and French presidents are "depriving themselves of a means of leverage that might have led to the release of imprisoned journalists and human rights activists."

Actually, a full or even partial boycott never had a chance. The real decision point was July 13, 2001, when the International Olympic Committee announced that it was awarding the games to the PRC.

Fears of another 1936, when Adolf Hitler's Third Reich manipulated the sports spectacle, were always overblown, since China is not a facsimile of Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, there was a reasonable case against awarding the games to the PRC. The human-rights situation in China was bad and Chinese promises to liberalize were unenforceable.


Once the IOC had committed to Beijing, however, logistics alone effectively forbade reconsideration. Later shifting the games to another locale would jeopardize the contest and create the kind of controversy international organizations seek to avoid at all costs.

A genuine boycott was barely more plausible. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was joined by about sixty states, while a few others skipped the opening parade or marched under the Olympic flag. No doubt the communist authorities were embarrassed, but in practice the effort achieved little beyond disappointing athletes who'd trained years for the competition.

The Soviet Union did not withdraw from Afghanistan; the Soviet military did not discover its kinder, gentler side. Moreover, the Soviets responded with a boycott of their own of Los Angeles in 1984. Although they were joined only by a baker's dozen of allies, the dual boycotts soured most everyone on using the Olympics to make political statements.

Any attempt to promote a genuine boycott of the Beijing Olympics would have run up against two facts: first, the PRC is less evil and less threatening than the Soviet Union. Second, the West has a lot more at stake in its relationship with China. Beijing is thuggishly authoritarian rather than brutally totalitarian, and has not invaded one of its neighbors. The PRC's threats against Taiwan might be unsettling, but aren't the same as attacking the island. Moreover, the USSR was an economic nullity, while China is a global trading state. The West would pay a price for angering the PRC.

The potential cost is hard to estimate since a boycott would affront the Chinese people as well as their government. A refusal to award the Olympics to Beijing could have been publicly disguised with the usual verbiage about having to choose among several fine contenders, leaving the more honest explanation to back channels. Chinese citizens might have been disappointed, but they would have had no easy target for their anger. It doesn't matter much if they hate the IOC, while Western states would have enjoyed the cover of plausible deniability.

However, by awarding the games to the PRC the IOC raised the Chinese people's expectations. Pride in their role as global Olympics host is obvious and a Western attempt to wreck the proceedings would have generated enormous hostility. Strong popular anger arose against the United States in the aftermath of the mistaken bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the EP-3 spy plane incident in 2001. An attempted Olympics boycott likely would have generated even greater wrath against the offending parties.

Half steps, such as avoiding the opening ceremonies, as advocated by both Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and John McCain (R-AZ), would antagonize the Chinese people without achieving any practical results. The West would appear fractured while the PRC still enjoyed massive media attention, showcasing the nation's drive for great- power status.