Commentary

Boycotts, partial or otherwise, won't have the desired effect

Updated: April 8, 2008, 3:31 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

Not to imply that the Olympics aren't going as smoothly as China planned, but this is the first year the torch relay requires a Degree of Difficulty in the scoring system.

The San Franciscan torchbearer received a 4.5 for dropping the torch and failing to pass it to the next runner after he was attacked by Gluten Free Tibet vegan monks, but scored an 8.0 for style points when he set the security van on fire before driving it off the Golden Gate Bridge in a spectacular plunge into the Bay.

[+] EnlargePro-Tibet demonstrator
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty ImagesProtests in Paris and London have slowed, or stopped, the Olympic torch relay in recent days.

What was supposed to be a celebratory relay of the torch to six continents has turned into a five-ring circus for China. Protests against China's policies toward Tibet and Sudan have grown as the torch hopscotches the globe. Scuffles broke out in London over the weekend, and there were so many protests in Paris on Monday that the flame had to be extinguished at least four times and eventually transported by bus. Citius, Altius, Minibus. Relaying the torch by bus is only slightly more dignified than transporting it by clown car, but still far preferable to its scheduled arrival at the Olympic Stadium in Beijing via armored tank.

It's sad watching the symbol of international athletic competition and harmony turned into the symbol of one government's repressive policies. Of course, the International Olympic Committee might have anticipated this problem when it awarded the 2008 Games to China in the first place. As a spokesman for the Dalai Lama's government in exile said in a release the day the bid was announced seven years ago, "We deeply regret that Beijing is awarded the 2008 Olympic Games. This will put the stamp of international approval for Beijing's human rights abuses and will encourage China to escalate its repression."

The torch protests bring up the obvious question: Should American athletes boycott the Olympic Games in Beijing to protest China's policies toward Tibet and Sudan? The answer is every bit as obvious. Absolutely. Just as soon as U.S. consumers boycott China by refusing to buy any products from that country, even if you can get a 32-inch HDTV with built-in DVD for just $648 at Wal-Mart.

It's easy to say that the rights of synchronized swimmers to perform their five-minute routine isn't worth tacitly endorsing China's actions in Tibet or its support for the Sudanese regime. But that's because it's always easy to fight for a principle by having someone else make the sacrifice. (After all, it's how the war in Iraq is being conducted.) There is absolutely no point to a country boycotting the Olympics if it will maintain normal trade relations with China as if everything is fine. It's also rather painful to do so when China helps to prop up the value of the falling American dollar.

Most of the protest groups have shrewdly steered clear of advocating an outright Olympic boycott. For one thing, they realize this unfairly hurts the athletes. For another, they know Olympic boycotts are not all that effective. The U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games did not exactly persuade the Soviet Union to leave Afghanistan (certainly not as much as a decade of bloody fighting and a drained economy eventually did), while the Eastern Bloc boycott of the 1984 Olympics accomplished nothing other than helping Americans win a whole lot more medals.

How then to register an effective protest?

There is talk of heads of state not attending the opening ceremonies. Wow, that will show them. Having President Bush not attend would have even less effect than renaming Chinese dishes from such entrees as Peking Duck to Freedom Duck or renaming American Chinatowns as Freedomtowns (or alternately, DalaiWood). No one will notice if President Bush or British Prime Minister Gordon Brown or anyone else is absent from the opening ceremonies. Quick -- can you remember whether either was at the opening ceremonies in Torino or Athens?

What would be much more effective is if entire teams decide not to march in the opening ceremonies, though the athletes would still compete in the Games themselves. This actually isn't much of a sacrifice for the athletes. Having been to a number of Olympic opening ceremonies, I can assure you these are generally bloated, bizarre (Yoko Ono sang in Torino for some reason) and very long, dull affairs, designed more to salute the host country than the athletes. Athletes would be doing themselves a favor by staying in the village.

Or, if athletes care about what's going on in Tibet and Sudan, they can unfurl "Free Tibet'' banners when they march in during the opening ceremonies. They could raise their fists in protest -- a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos -- while accepting their medals. They could wave little Tibetan flags Bruce Jenner-style after winning an event. Anything to bring attention to the protest and put embarrassing pressure on the government.

That's the benefit of staying in the Olympics. Boycott them and no one notices. Participate and you can make a statement. China anticipated using the Olympics as a giant public-relations gala for the rising country. Just as the torch relay is demonstrating, though, the Games also can be used as a stage to focus the spotlight on China in ways it never imagined when it bid for the Olympics.

As for the IOC, this is just a hunch, but president Jacques Rogge might be regretting it didn't give the 2008 Games to Toronto when it had the chance.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com