Susan Brownell: Beijing Olympics FAQ #2: Would a boycott succeed?





[Susan Brownell is the author of Training the Body for China, which is widely recognized as the single best work by a scholar on Chinese sports.]

I can say with some certainty that in the current geopolitical climate, calls for an Olympic boycott will be unsuccessful - though I suppose they make for good headlines. The advocacy groups who are calling for boycotts have no direct control over the organization of the Olympic Games. In order for a boycott to succeed, the organizations that would have to support it are

1) the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and/or

2) the 205 National Olympic Committees (NOCs for short) that are planning to send athletes to the Games – which would result from pressure from their national governments.

Some pundits raise the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an example of an Olympics that should have been boycotted. However, if you study the history of the IOC after those games, it appears that the "Hitler Games" actually strengthened the IOC's anti-boycott position. The American IOC member at that time, Ernst Lee Jahncke, supported an American boycott. Avery Brundage opposed the boycott and managed to achieve a supportive vote in the Amateur Athletic Union, which governed most Olympic sports at that time. Jahncke was expelled from the IOC and Brundage was co-opted to take his place. Brundage later became IOC president from 1952 to 1972 and is the only American to have held that position. He was not a sophisticated thinker, but he was pithy. It was he who popularized the phrases “keep politics out of sport” and “the Games must go on” (the latter was stated after the massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972).

The fact that today the 1936 Games are used as an argument in support of boycotting the Beijing Games shows that the outside world does not always see things the way the inner IOC circles do - so one might ask, is either side deluded? Or do they simply have differing agendas? Clearly they have different agendas. So what, ultimately, is the agenda of IOC members? Well, they are a varied lot, but they all have one thing in common – whatever benefits they get from being IOC members increase in times of peace, international cooperation, and expanded economic interdependency. They thus have a vested interest in interlinking the world through Olympic sports.

New IOC members are selected by the existing IOC members in a process called "co-optation." They are not representatives of their countries and are not appointed or elected by their country. They are co-opted because of their commitment to the Olympic Movement, a commitment that in theory should be idealistic but in practice may be pragmatic (or some combination of both). An example of a member co-opted for her idealistic commitment is the U.S. member, Anita DeFrantz, who was co-opted in 1986 after she had gained international attention by filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee over its boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, contesting its authority to prevent U.S. athletes from taking part in the Games. She lost, but she was identified by the IOC as someone whose commitment to the Olympic ideals superseded her commitment to following the orders of the U.S. government. An example of a pragmatic commitment would be U.S. member Jim Easton, who owns a sporting goods company and presumably has a vested interest in a successful Olympic Games since Olympic athletes endorse his products.

Most if not all IOC members have some kind of vested interest in assuring that the Games go on. One could be cynical about this – like the most outspoken Olympic critic in the U.S., John Hoberman, who has labeled the IOC’s guiding ideology “amoral universalism.” Or one could reserve moral judgment and pragmatically recognize that they are part of the world trend in which the interests of increasing numbers of individuals get linked into international interdependency chains, so that finally people recognize that peaceful international relations benefit them personally - while boycotts, embargoes and wars do not.

If one wants to credit IOC members with some idealism, one could observe that there's a general consensus among the current IOC membership that past boycotts were not effective in bringing about any political change, and all they did was to harm the athletes of the world. Athletes from non-participating countries lost their chance to take part; athletes from participating countries missed their rivals; global sports as a whole were damaged.

Another point is that currently less than half of IOC members are from Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand (47 out of 110, or 44%). We cannot expect that the members from Africa, Asia, or the Middle East (63 members, or 57%) share Western neo-liberal political views. Also, anti-American feeling is running very high in the IOC right now, and it is likely that if the U.S. government spearheaded a boycott, there would be backlash in the IOC.

All things considered, the IOC’s opposition to boycotts is probably stronger now than at any previous time in its history.

The NOCs are required by the Olympic Charter (Fundamental Principle #4), to be politically independent from their national governments. Still, the NOCs would only boycott in reaction to pressure from their national governments, but in some countries they can defy their governments. This happened during the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, when 7 governments boycotted but allowed NOCs to send athletes. So the question is whether the world's governments - or in particular the U.S. and Western European governments - would boycott the Games. In a daily press briefing in June 2007, a State Department spokesman answered questions about a boycott in response to the crisis in Darfur by stating, “It is not a U.S. Government effort. It is not something that we have supported…. It's not something the U.S. Government has subscribed to.” In September President Bush announced that he had accepted the invitation to attend the Olympics that had been extended to him personally by Hu Jintao.

Let me return to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The most important question is not whether the 1936 Games gave legitimacy to the Nazi regime. The most important question is whether they contributed to the relatively peaceful relations that have existed between Germany and the rest of the world for over half a century now. I am not an expert on that history, so I’ll leave that question to others. I do know that this is 70 years later and not only is the world a different place, but also the Olympic Games are a different animal. They are much, much bigger now. They are not an event; they are a process. In future posts I hope to communicate something about the scale and hope of that process as it unfolds in Beijing.


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