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Boycotts and International Sports

An editorial in yesterday’s New Republic returns to the increasingly urgent question of participation in next year’s Beijing Olympics, and the possibility of a boycott by US athletes in protest at China’s appalling human rights record. TNR’s editors concede that … Read More

By / October 19, 2007

An editorial in yesterday’s New Republic returns to the increasingly urgent question of participation in next year’s Beijing Olympics, and the possibility of a boycott by US athletes in protest at China’s appalling human rights record. TNR’s editors concede that a boycott is unlikely to happen, for commercial as much as political reasons, but propose an alternative; instead of refusing to attend, US athletes should use the Games, and their attendant publicity, to make highly public, and visual, protests against the lack of free speech and civil liberties in the country, akin to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s famous Black Power salute in Mexico City in 1968. (Then, as now, the well-lunched suits at the IOC took a dim view of anything which threatened their cash cow. Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the rest of the Games.)

The nexus of sport and politics is a complex one; it’s rarely as simple to disentangle the two as we would like, but by the same token it can be difficult to decide when the boycott is an appropriate weapon to use against a rogue state. Most historians and sports fans would agree that the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games achieved bugger all (except for Scottish sprinter Allan Wells, whose gold medal in the men’s 100m was at least partly attributable to the absence of US sprinters, though he regularly beat all-comers for some time afterwards). As for the retaliatory Soviet boycott four years later, it was simply pathetic.

But at the same time as the superpowers were using sport as a continuation of cold war by other means, the boycott of apartheid South Africa was in full swing. South Africa had been banned from the Olympics as early as 1964; much more damaging to that sports-mad nation were worldwide boycotts of the cricket side and, most crucially of all, the Springboks rugby team, which was (and is) central to the Afrikaner identity in a way it’s perhaps difficult for outsiders to appreciate. (When Nelson Mandela attended the World Cup Rugby final in 1995, he wore the hated [by black South Africans] green jersey to make the presentation to the winning Springboks team, and in doing so made a powerful gesture of reconciliation that is remembered to this day.) Whether the boycott ultimately contributed much to the fall of apartheid is doubtful, however.

The biggest controversy of recent years surrounded Zimbabwe’s participation in the 2003 Cricket World Cup. After a protracted, farcical will-they won’t-they dance that lasted some weeks, the England team forfeited their match against Zimbabwe rather than travel to Harare to play, but on the mealy-mouthed grounds of player safety rather than out of principle. Two Zimbabwean players – black bowler Henry Olonga and the (white) captain, Andy Flower, had rather more guts, and wore black armbands in a match against Namibia as a protest against the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe – and were immediately sacked, eventually being granted asylum in the UK. Zimbabwe continue to participate, albeit sporadically, in international cricket; Mugabe’s people continue to starve. England’s protest, like that of the brave Zimbabwean players, made headlines but changed nothing.

Fast forward to the present day, and calls for a boycott of Beijing 2008 come and go. The arguments for and against such action will not be rehearsed here, but it’s unlikely to get off the ground either way; there’s just too much invested in the Games for a boycott to be called at this stage.

The Games should never have been awarded to China. The expressed hope was that bringing the Olympics to Beijing would help open up the world’s most populous nation and persuade its rulers to relax restrictions on political freedom. This process may be happening on its own – very slowly – but it’s hard to see, ten months out, much cause for optimism, and there’s every expectation that the Games will instead be a massive propaganda coup for the Chinese regime. And the upcoming attention does not, for example, seem to have had any discernible effect on their support for the junta currently liquidating opposition in Burma. Nonetheless, there are few grounds for imagining that a boycott would make any difference whatever to the Chinese people or their rulers in the longer term.

Despite their ineffectiveness, however, boycotts remain popular. And for many people around the globe, there’s no doubt who’s first in the firing line, metaphorically and literally, in any shopping list of nations that deserve the cold shoulder; yep, it’s the nasty Jooos and their ‘apartheid occupation regime’ in Palestine. And it’s quite often forgotten that Israel has been the object of the longest sporting boycott in history. Teams from all over the Muslim world refuse to compete with them, not just on the sporting field but in everything from high school debating to international tap-dancing. Israel’s soccer team play in the European Championships rather than the Asian Cup for a reason. And this boycott extends, through any number of official and unofficial channels, to anything and everything to do with the state of Israel.

Inevitably, the trend has spread, in the past few years, to the bien-pensant, anti-Zionist left in the UK and the US, most notably in the form of the UCU boycott of Israeli academics and universities, which was only recently defeated thanks to a legal challenge. The boycottistas, with the keen support of the far left, are fond of comparing their campaign against Israel to the good old days of the anti-apartheid movement, but the truth is that behind the impassioned pleas for Palestinian civil rights and [sometimes] justifiable condemnations of Israeli excesses, lies a hardline anti-engagement agenda that does as much to poison the well for peace as the most extremist West Bank settler.

Support for a boycott of Israel, whether sporting, academic, economic or political, relies not on disapproval of this government or that, but of Israel as such; comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa feeds both covertly and consciously into the all-too-prevalent idea that Israel is a cuckoo in the nest which doesn’t belong on Palestinian soil, that it is an illegitimate regime which must be brought down by international pressure. That is not to say that all supporters of the boycott have suspect intentions; but their simplistic, cack-handed approach does nothing to encourage a dispassionate view of the steps that need to be taken to bring about a lasting peace, because it loads all the blame onto one side. But of course, for the SWP and many of the other hard-left groups involved, there is another, darker agenda at work. You don’t see them clamouring to boycott the murderous thugs who run Gaza.

I find the issue of boycotts very difficult. On the one hand, I applaud the stance of the British Prime Minister, who says he will not attend the EU–African summit in Lisbon in December if Mugabe shows up. And I was angry that the England cricket team didn’t have the courage to stand up and say that they would not travel to Zimbabwe to play them in 2003. On the other, there’s plenty of evidence that boycotts are not only ineffectual but also hit the wrong people, punishing innocent working people for the crimes of politicians and soldiers. As for sport, once you bring politics onto the field of play, it’s difficult to know where the line should be drawn. If we boycott China over their support for the Burmese regime, why not South Africa over their support for the Mugabe thuggocracy?

So, on balance, I agree with TNR’s suggestion; show up to the Games, but make sure the Chinese government don’t get a free ride. How glorious if the winner of the men’s 100m could dedicate his victory to the political prisoners in China’s jails, or the winning basketball team unfurl a subversive banner that even Chinese state television would struggle to censor. It might not be Jesse Owens sticking it to the Fuhrer, but it would be something, wouldn’t it? Until the IOC banned them the next day, of course.

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