Column: Don't Hang Beijing Out to DryNews at Home
When the Soviet Union was awarded the 1980 games in the early seventies as part of a deal that allowed the U.S.A. to have the games in 1984, we (and the Olympic officials) were very well aware of the Gulags and the entire picture of restrained liberty in the Soviet Union. But there was an air of"detente" emanating from the Nixon Administration. And we certainly could not at the moment contemplate that the Soviet Union would invade a then neutral nation--Afghanistan, perhaps precipitating the world of problems we now face. But today we are very aware of A litany of vices of the Chinese regime and even if we hope that China improves and our Sino-American detente can continue, we can be certain that China will not clean up its act entirely by the time the torch is lit in 2008. While we hold the notion that economic growth will open the door to political reform, we held the same notion regarding China in the 1980s, and we got smacked in the face with the reality of guns killing those protesting for reform. The point is this: The President of the United States in 2008--be it a Bush, Powell, Gore, Lieberman, or Amy Carter--will be able to find a reason to protest and object to the games being held in Beijing--if he (or she) wants to.
We should start preparing now for that eventuality. We should openly discuss the possibilities, and we should develop policy options. Now, not at the last moment.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter acted with great haste and in essential isolation without counsel from key direction as he mandated that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics. In his heart he may have been right, but then we know that in his heart there was not always purity. In his mind he may have been consulting with Amy regarding the games, but he did not consult with the athletes who in many cases spent years or even decades preparing for their participation. He did not consult with Congress although there were certainly federal policy questions involved. He did not consult with Los Angeles civic and political leaders who were to host the 1984 games--and who as a result of his decision suffered a retaliatory boycott of their games by the Soviet Union and many East Bloc countries (a boycott our Chinese"friends" did not follow). President Carter did not consult business interests involved. Perhaps they are not supposed to run America, but they did put at risk tens and hundreds of millions of dollars preparing to televise the games, equipped the games, and organize transportation for the games. Carter did not consult our allies, and yet he fully expected them to blindly follow his lonely lead in the boycott. Many did so hence imposing very high costs upon their athletes and their businesses.
Most regrettably President Carter did not consult me, for I could have given him a much better alternative for protesting the bad actions of the Soviet Union. I will share my unsought advice to President Carter, and perhaps my plan for 1980 can be used in 2008 if the need arises. On the other hand, the advice may be useful for 2004 and all subsequent Olympics regardless of where they are held.
Now more than ever we need a spirit of internationalism. However, the Olympic spirit of Internationalism has been almost totally destroyed by by an obnoxious exercise in collective nationalism each four years. Each time I see a"We're Number One" sign, or hear a"USA USA USA" chant, I feel that out national values have been betrayed. I feel sickened when our Olympic representatives resort to pressure games officials to allow N.B.A. basketball professionals participate just so we can avert to embarrassment of seeing some other nation win a medal in what is"our" sport. Often, when I see rude strutting athletes with my fellow citizens cheering them on and waving that one finger in the air I start cheering for the other side--any other side. The games need to be denationalized.
Carter could have struck a blow for international good will by declaring that the team from the United States would not be taking the American flag with them to Moscow. Nor would they appear in USA uniforms, nor when victorious, would the national anthem of our country be heard. National symbolism has its place in our country—a vital place after 9-11, but still our symbols of national pride also can be out of place when we wish to be building bridges for better human relations among peoples of the whole world.
We should recognize that on the one hand the games would be more appealing as an occasion of sports competition if we did not have players using our national symbols as if they were logos for the Cleveland Indians or Nebraska Cornhuskers.
More importantly, by keeping the flag and our national identity at home, yet still sending competitors, and still sending our national sports (and news) media, we would have told the world that we object to the behavior of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Our athletes could have worn their personal uniforms sans commercial logos, and they could have been encouraged to wear arm bands of protest. Moreover, athletes and fans alike from around the world could have been encouraged to use the occasion to assert their desire for peace through picket signs and protest marches in Moscow—and on camera--worldwide. Perhaps the residents of Moscow would have even liked to join in a protest march; many were not happy to see their sons sent off to a war that made no sense to them.
When one of our team members won a gold, the athlete could request that a song of international cooperation of peace be played. The Olympic Committee (in exchange for our support of the games) could be persuaded to play a song chose by the athlete--as long as it was not his or her national song. (I like"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me," or another nation's song"Finlandia.") Athletes could be encouraged to wear other signs affirming the desire for peace and cooperation among all nations.
In this way Carter could have projected his desire for"human rights" out to the whole world, rather than using it as a weapon of division among nations.
One might think that the Soviets (or Chinese) would by force stop the kind of demonstrations and activities I am suggesting we could have encouraged. Indeed, if it was their inclination they could have stopped the games. I don't think they would have done so, but our regrets are that we did so.
No country that has ever held the Olympics was perfect. No country that sends athletes to the games is perfect. We have competed in Hitler's Berlin, in colonial London, in a race-closed Melbourne, in a politically closed Mexico City. Our athletes competed side by side with Stalin's and Hitler's athletes. We can compete in China, we have chosen China for the International games. But we should consider that there will be ways of protesting bad behavior of the Chinese if they wish to turn their clock backwards. It can be noted that in the week after getting the gamers, the Chinese arrested Chinese-American scholars on some rather nebulous spy charges. They were released, but it seems China has a slow learning curve. We should be ready to protest, we should seek to have the games become international games, but we should not boycott.