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For many U.S. athletes, an Olympics boycott is out

Olympic hopefuls gathered in Chicago this week say that boycotts do not work. Athletes who were unable to compete in 1980 concur.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2008

Going to Beijing: Rau'Shee Warren, left, is on the US Olympic boxing team. He is in Chicago this week at a gathering of Olympic athletes.

Frank Polich/Reuters

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With the torch relay besieged by protesters and world leaders increasingly critical of Olympic host-nation China, the past month has marked the largest political challenge in a generation for the Olympic movement.

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But frankly, it's not much more than background noise for gymnast Paul Hamm. In trying to make the Olympic team, he's got plenty to cope with already.

"What's going on is important and we should pay attention to it," says the 2004 all-around gold medalist. "But on the other hand … we need to be athletes first."

In 1980, that didn't happen. American athletes were forced to boycott the Moscow Games in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today, there have been no major calls for a boycott. That is significant, given the pressure to take China to task for its human rights record. It suggests that the world has drawn from the 1980 boycott the conclusion that Olympic boycotts don't work.

"The lesson taken from the boycott is that the only people who suffer are the athletes," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian.

This is a relief to American Olympic hopefuls gathered here in Chicago this week for a media summit. Among them, many plead ignorance, saying that amid six-hour-a-day training sessions and the crush of the approaching Olympic trials, whatever spare time they can muster is spent in a vegetative state. Others appreciate the message protesters are trying to make.

Yet, not surprisingly, each shares a reverence for the Games and hopes that the upheaval will not overshadow the spirit of the Games – the camaraderie and single-minded pursuit of excellence that athletes say is the best tonic for the problems the world faces.

"I don't think there's anything that's going to change the way we think about the Olympics," says gymnast Shawn Johnson, this year's entry in the sweepstakes to become the next Mary Lou Retton. "In the end, we are athletes and we've been working the last 16 years for this," she adds.

Brian Gust spent eight years training to make the Olympic wrestling team after he left the Green Berets in 1972. Even when he heard about a potential boycott he couldn't stop training. "Your training has to mimic your goal," he says. With the best wrestlers of his day coming from Russia and Finland, he adds, "you have to travel around the world to compete with those people."

But with word of the boycott, sponsorships dried up and he had to mortgage his house twice and push all his credit cards to their limits to keep going. It took him 10 years to pay off the debts. He is not bitter about this, but he wonders if anything was accomplished. "The [Afghan] invasion continued," Mr. Gust says.

Such experiences appear to have spread sentiment in favor of participation beyond the athletes' village. There has never been any serious discussion of a full-blown Beijing boycott.

"I do not think we should boycott the whole Olympics," German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently commented. "We have seen that did not work."

Instead, political leaders and activists are seeking other means of influencing China. Politicians seem to have settled on the idea of boycotting the opening ceremonies, something Mrs. Merkel will do. Last week, the European Parliament passed a resolution encouraging politicians to skip the opening ceremonies if China did not begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the subject of autonomy for Tibet.