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.

Frank Polich/Reuters
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
Elaine Youngs, a US beach volleyball team member is in Chicago this week at a gathering of Olympic athletes.
German judo expert Yvonne Boenisch, below, seen at the 2005 world championships, says she will boycott the opening ceremonies.

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.

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.

President Bush recently called this tactic a "cop-out," saying he plans to attend. In a normal Olympics, however, declining an invitation to the opening ceremonies would hardly be a matter of comment. If Mr. Bush goes to Beijing, he would be the first US president to attend an opening ceremonies outside the US.

But Beijing Olympic officials have sought to make their Games superlative in every sense – and bringing an unprecedented retinue of foreign leaders to the opening ceremonies is a part of that design.

So, too, is the torch relay – the longest in history, covering 85,000 miles and every continent except Antarctica. With dissidents scared to speak out in China, protesters abroad have used the torch relay as a candle for their causes – from Darfur to Tibet.

And that is fine, say most athletes. "I do think it is a good thing that China is hosting the Olympics, because none of these things would have come to light otherwise," says cyclist Sarah Hammer. "I don't think the protests were against what the Olympics are, they just used the Olympics as a platform."

Yet she and other Olympic hopefuls draw the line at violence or wholesale disruptions of Olympic events – such as when protesters in London and Paris broke through a police cordon and extinguished the Olympic flame.

The reaction to this event hints at a potential cultural distinction between American and European athletes, with Europeans seemingly more willing to bring the spirit of protest into the venues.

French pole-vaulter Romain Mesnil is lobbying the International Olympic Committee to allow him to wear a badge that says "For a better world" – a veiled protest against China's human rights record. German judo athlete Yvonne Boenisch said Tuesday that she will boycott the opening ceremony; German fencer Imke Duplitzer and Norwegian cyclist Thor Hushovd have suggested they might as well.

The vast majority of athletes in Chicago this week, however, expressed no such appetite. Even Ben Wildman-Tobriner, a swimmer who has applied for a Rhodes scholarship and grew up in the Haight district of San Francisco – ground zero for the activist 1960s – disagrees with any form of protest. He has opinions, he says, but "to me, this isn't the time to express them."

Adds wrestler Lindsey Durlacher: "I don't really like some of the policies of the Chinese government, but I'm a wrestler, I try not to get involved in politics. I need a medal first, then I'll worry about politics later."

That is the best attitude, says Glenn Mills, a member of the 1980 Olympic swim team, which was still named despite the boycott. Many of the athletes have been working toward these Games since before they were awarded to Beijing, he adds: "Now, it just so happens that they're in the middle of it."

For Mr. Mills, the 1980 Games turned out to be his only chance. Four years later, he missed qualifying for the Olympic team by 0.5 seconds.

Athletes and analysts say the moral for today is that a boycott of the Games would not bring Chinese reforms – and might accomplish the opposite, worsening ties with the West. Says Mr. Wallechinsky: "Better to go and give them a view of the outside world."

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