Boycott the Opening Ceremonies at Beijing 2008

Rohrabacher and Amadinejad. The International Olympic Committee and the government of China. What’s going on here?

Today Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) spoke to the BBC on his House Resolutions calling on the President to boycott the 2008 Olympic Games in China ([H.RES.608.IH], [H.RES.610.IH], [H.RES.628.IH]). Some are saying that he is watering down his initial proposal too much by now calling for a boycott of the opening ceremonies rather than the entire Games.

It’s a tough issue. The Games are, and should be and must be, non-political, down in the trenches. At the individual competitor level, they’re the top of the heap, the ultimate challenge for each athlete to prove his mettle on an international stage. It’s the right and privilege of all those determined and dedicated athletes to participate in these Games regardless of what anyone’s perspective on the “big picture” of the Games may be, and without any undue aspersions being cast upon them for so doing. However, no one can help but notice that China is not a democracy, does not have a good human rights record, a good civil rights record. To go and put the blinders on as if nothing were amiss would not be credible, and we would not accept that on the part of our star athletes. It puts them in a very awkward position. To compete or not to compete?

So in this light, Mr. Rohrabacher’s tempering of the challenge seems appropriate. I mean, China? Hello? Let’s talk about Darfur. Let’s talk about Burma. Let’s talk about Tibet. There’s really no way to let the issue go unnoticed or unmentioned. But to make the athletes take the rap for the whole political arena would be unfair. It’s like parents parading their young children around – when they’re too young to possibly make a decision that is their own – in favor of their own pet cause. It’s wrong, it’s unethical. But a strong case could be made – likely even by the athletes themselves – that to skip the pageantry of the opening ceremonies, which always end up paying some sort of tribute to the hosting country – might be just the ticket. Get on with the competition, skip the party. Yes, it would be a little bit of a downer for them, at the moment. But it would give them an avenue to be proud for decades afterwards, and to go down in history as having done the right thing, rather than pretending that there was no problem, or, on the other hand, cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Why should they have to deal with this? Because it exists in the world. Top athletes are both autonomous agents and avatars. They are compelled to do their own thing, but they must do ours too; they must do that which we would do if we were as fit and strong and disciplined and developed and persistent and resilient as they are. Knowing this, they attempt as much as possible without compromising their game to do what we expect of them. They have the power and the duty to make a statement.

The IOC knows this. Do you think think they do not? Much as the Nobel Institute and Committee make their determinations regarding recipients with a great deal of public input but even more private machinations, so too does the IOC reserve to its own private deliberations the final decision on which city shall host the Games. The Committee is well aware of its own Fundamental Principals, #2 of which states: “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.” I believe it was in fact with exactly these precepts firmly in mind that the IOC made its selection of Beijing as the 2008 host city. What better way to effect the desired changes as outlined in Mr. Rohrabacher [et al]’s Resolutions than to shine a bright international light on Beijing, and so on China?

I don’t know how many of you remember that Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad seemed genuinely surprised when, in an appearance hosted by New York’s Columbia University, he was laughed at by the audience for his matter-of-fact assertion that there are no homosexuals in Iran. It is just this kind of surprise that China must now be experiencing, and must respond to. The pressure will continue all the way up to and through the Olympic Games. A U.S. boycott of the opening ceremonies – likely to be joined in by other countries – would have an enormous impact on the Chinese image, and on the self-image of the Chinese people. It is exactly the not-so-subtle kind of quasi-political, world-arena statement that needs to be made. It is a way that China can be forced to change, to save its own face, and in a way that can not easily be dodged or reversed.

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