Olympic boycotts – a bad idea

They don't work. Instead, promote the Olympic truce.

Opponents of Chinese policy in Tibet, Darfur, and elsewhere are calling for total or partial boycotts of Beijing's summer Olympics. Protesters disrupted the running of the torch in London and Paris this week, triggering talk of canceling the international leg of the relay. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton called on President Bush Monday to boycott the opening ceremonies in Beijing.

These efforts are mistaken. History suggests a better idea: Revive and promote the idea of the Olympic Truce period, when violent conflicts halt for the period of the Games and sometimes afterward.

As the Olympic flame began its long ceremonial journey last month to Beijing from Greece, the Games' ancient birthplace, International Olympic Committee chairman Jacques Rogge rejected the boycott idea. The 2008 Games, he said, would help to open China, including its human rights policies, to the world media.

Since the ancient Games were revived in Athens in 1896, few if anyone proposed boycotts during the early decades of this most global of sporting events. Human rights activists in 1936 could have justifiably stigmatized and boycotted the Berlin Olympics. But they didn't, even though Adolph Hitler's persecution of Jews and other minorities and his territorial expansion in Europe had already begun.

The first Olympics boycotted – by Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland – were the 1956 Melbourne Games because of the Soviet Union's crushing of the Hungarian revolt. Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia, and Lebanon also boycotted Melbourne because of the Suez War. None of these boycotts had the slightest beneficial effect on the political situations they tried to target.

Many African states threatened or carried out boycotts of the Games in 1972 and 1976 to force officials to ban white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia (they failed to get New Zealand banned in 1976 because its rugby team had played in South Africa). This aroused sympathy for the athletes banned from competing, but apartheid and white rule weren't affected in the two banned states until years later.

The US and the USSR boycotted each other's Los Angeles and Moscow Games in 1980 and 1984 respectively. President Jimmy Carter led 65 nations boycotting the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets retaliated by keeping their teams and those of 13 other East bloc states away from Los Angeles, promoting their own "Friendship Games" in that summer of 1984. Careers of many athletes suffered and cold war tensions rose as a result.

This year, an alternative to boycotts – reactivating the ancient Olympic Truce concept – would serve the causes of peacemakers and human rights activists everywhere. Last year's UN General Assembly session, referring to the Beijing Games, reiterated the Olympic Truce resolution taken for the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2001.

The UN's appeal for observance of the Olympic Truce in the 1990s allowed athletes from former Yugoslavia to participate in the Lillehammer, Norway, Winter Games, despite the wars raging in their regions.

The Olympic Truce concept first arose as early as the 9th century BC. The Greek city-state of Elis and two neighboring states arranged a cease-fire. Elis citizens traveled around Greece to publicize it. Athletes and their families and fans were guaranteed safe travel through hostile territory for seven days before and seven days after the Games.

Groups who urge boycotts of Beijing could instead cooperate with the UN and its members in promoting the truce concept. One way would be for China's government to invite a Tibetan delegation headed by the Dalai Lama to Beijing. China should further guarantee the safety and security of those attending the Games, including dissidents and protesters. Opposition groups, for their part, should suspend aggressive or violent tactics.

The Dalai Lama has often expressed readiness to travel from his exile in India to talk peace and Tibetan autonomy with Chinese leaders in Beijing, despite their wrathful denunciations of him.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when delegates from supposedly hostile North and South Korea marched together under a unification flag, Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General, said: "Olympic ideals are also United Nations ideals: tolerance, equality, fair play, and most of all, peace."

Not a bad formula to inspire the Beijing Games – and many future Olympiads to come.

John Cooley, author and former Monitor correspondent, has covered the Middle East and parts of Asia for nearly 50 years.

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