The Olympics: A Return to Ethics: Character, Principles, and Consequences





Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Legalized Gambling: A Reference Handboo (Santa Barbara and Denver: ABC-Clio, 1994 and 1997-2nd ed.).

Public administration scholar James Svara advances the notion that moral duty should be defined within a triangle bounded by concerns for three factors: character, principles, and consequences.*   The three factors are illustrated in the philosophies of Aristotle, Kant, and Bentham.  All the factors must be considered if ethical choices are to be made.  However, the factors may conflict with one another, and leaders are often guided by one or two sides of the triangle in their decision making endeavors.

As we ponder contemporary problems, we would be wise to reflect upon the activity of the recent president who most chose to wear a mantle of “morality” in his activity: James Earl Carter.  It is surprising that his name does not surface a lot these days as we plod through the presidential election process.  Perhaps the next rude college student confronting Chelsea Clinton will ask a question about her observations on “lust in the heart” of the next White House dweller.  Maybe the press will choose to comment on President Carter’s “moral” decision to resign from his church congregation in Plains, Georgia, because other members outwardly displayed their racism.  Were principles or character at work, or was the decision but a move for electoral credibility—an act in consideration of consequences?

But the current policy scene contains a more important issue--an international issue--that should take us back to the activity of President Carter.  In 1980, the President, unilaterally—and without even a one day debate in Congress—decreed that the U.S. team of athletes would not compete in the Olympic games being held in Moscow.  Carter had discovered—unilaterally, all by himself, sans one single resolution in the United Nations, or one single vote from a senator or a member of the House of Representatives—that the Soviet Union was an “evil empire” and unworthy of hosting the games, because the Soviet Army had invaded Afghanistan to oppose the Mujahideen, Taliban and other interests.  Carter’s character and moral principles reigned supreme over consequences such as denying athletes the right to compete, causing myriad businesses (both collectivist and free enterprise) to lose hundreds of millions of dollars (in investments and potential profits), heightening international tensions following a decade of carefully planned and negotiated détente, and the predictable consequence that the Soviets would enact a retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Olympic games held in Los Angeles.  Not only did Carter institute an American boycott of the games but he—after making the decision—used his moral “stature” to enlist many allies in the boycott.  The Soviet Union also enlisted their allies in shunning the American games in 1984s.

I recall being at the Los Angeles Forum for an afternoon of basketball competition during the summer games of 1984.  I saw games involving teams from Italy, Argentina, Yugoslavia, and China.  During the ceremony when the athletes entered the arena, our loudest cheers were for the team from China.  The crowd favorites had defied the decree of their Soviet “fellow travelers,” and we appreciated their independence—their principled display of character regardless the consequences. That was then, this is now.

This is now, but seven years ago, a decision was made—with American compliance--to hold the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.  Perhaps American interests were happy to endorse Beijing as the site as a recognition of the support China had given us during both the 1984 games and the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia.  Nonetheless, in 2001 I raised questions about the choice in a History News Network essay (November 19, 2001).  I suggested that a decision to hold the Olympics in a foreign nation represents a “commitment,” and that a “commitment” should be considered as an important part of the moral framework surrounding subsequent decision making.  I suggested that before a commitment is made (such as was made in the early 1970s when we endorsed a plan to hold Olympic games in both Moscow and in the United States), we should consider the entire moral equation and examine all the elements of the triangle, and the theories of Aristotle, Kant, and Bentham.

In the early 1970s we knew that the Soviet Union was part of an evil empire, even as we negotiated with the Communists and even as we spoke of detente.  We knew that the Soviets had invaded Hungary to suppress an uprising for freedom, we knew that the Soviets occupied eastern Europe (even though no one had told this to Gerald Ford), we knew about Siberia, and we knew about the Gulags.  Why at the time of the Olympic decision in the early 1970s would we not suspect that the Soviet Union would participate in morally reprehensible behaviors in the future.  But we participated in a decision and we gave a commitment.  I do not recall that commitment being discussed when James Earl Carter sought my vote in the 1976 presidential election.  I didn’t think about it, but as I do, I believe that his 1976 silence was an assurance that we would abide by our national commitments in this regard.  A majority did vote for his election.

So in 2001 I wrote about the litany of moral atrocities in which China was already engaging: “censorship, religious intolerance and subjugation, prison labor, Tibet, political prisoners, arrests of academic scholars, aggressive threats toward Taiwan, violation of copyright protections, pirating patents, selling nuclear materials to rouge nations, environmental destruction—both with air pollution and the Yangtze dam project, lack of handicapped rights, toleration of infanticide and forced abortions, harassing spies over international waters,” and I added, “maybe a few others.” I implied that these were ongoing atrocities.  I implied that we could easily predict that any one of them or many of the atrocities could flare up again in 2008. These activities were part of the “character” of the Chinese government.

Now we have such a “flare-up” with protests in Tibet, and protests about freedoms in Tibet.  In the course of events there has been violence and there have been at least 130 deaths—much of the blood is on the hands of the Chinese military.

Unlike 1980 when there were no public outcries raised against our participation in the Moscow Olympics, there are now such outcries against our participation in Beijing.  So where are we in the Ethics Triangle?  President Bush has affirmed that we will participate in the games, and that he will be present for the opening ceremonies.  Is this a reflection of his character?  His political opponents do condemn his very Carter-like principled quest to spread American liberties around the globe.  Are they now happy that he is abandoning that posture for the games?  Or, instead, will they rise forth and use their favorite word once again: “Hypocrite?”   How can he be true to principles of democracy, liberty, and honesty by associating with the evil Chinese at this point in time?  Certainly one of the candidates for president would understand that he wishes to keep associations with past friends, and even to start new associations with countries which condemn liberty (e.g. Iran).

Perhaps Bush is more concerned with consequences, and he is taking a Jeremy Bentham posture of considering the greatest good for the greatest numbers.  Maybe he is considering that the United States government needs a continuing influx of capital funds from the Chinese in order to prop up our national treasury.  Perhaps he is thinking that we will need a future ally to combat terrorism, sort of like we needed Stalin in order to fight Hitler.   But then maybe there is something called character and principle that allows Bush to participate with American teams at the Olympics in Beijing.

We made a commitment, and when we made that commitment, our eyes were very open. No one lied about China.  We accepted what was as what also may be—then (2001) and in the future (2008).  To abandon commitments is to abandon principles, and to abandon good character.  To make commitments and then turn one’s back upon those commitments is the same as lying.  The reader is urged to examine Sissela Bok’s book, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, for appropriate commentary on the circumstances we now face.  We may also reflect upon President Reagan’s decision to go ahead with a speech at the Bitburg Cemetery in Germany in 1985 , even after he learned that remains of some SS soldiers were laid to rest there.  He could allow others to criticize him; he could offer apologies to those who felt he was doing the wrong thing.  However, he had made a commitment to the German Chancellor Kohl—an ally—to be there, and so to there he went.    

In my 2001 essay, I suggested that President Carter may have found a better way than a boycott which belied our commitment to choices we had made to have the Olympics in Moscow and then Los Angeles.  I suggested that we could have allowed athletes to attend as individuals and without the American flag.  Such an effort could have initiated a major renewal of an original Olympic spirit (dating back to 700 B.C.) that the games be free from national politics.  I also suggested that individual athletes could have individually expressed their disdain for immoral practices by all nations.  They could have participated in passive protests, perhaps wearing arm bans or peace symbols.

President Bush has committed to take our Flag to Beijing, so that suggestion may not be viable today.  However, our athletes could be given an informal green light to join in peaceful protests outside of the playing arenas against the actions of China in Tibet, and maybe also against activities of all governments which compromise peace and liberty anywhere. 

Sometimes the trip around the Ethics Triangle finds us on jagged edges and at sharp corners.  Often it is not an easy journey.  But once upon the journey, it is best to continue the quest to be ethical, it is best to keep searching for character, principles, and the best consequences.  Let the games begin, with the United States, in China.

* James Svara, Ethics Primer for Public Administrators in Government and Nonprofit Organizations (2007).

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    William J. Stepp - 4/8/2008

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