Boycott the Olympics? Here’s a better idea

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

The Olympic Games have been the scene of several high-profile political statements over the past three-quarters of a century. Take a look at these photos and see which ones made an impact:








I’m willing to bet that (particularly if you’re over the age of, say, 50) you could recognize most of the above photos: Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the awards stand at Mexico City in 1968 (photo “a”);  the Black September terrorist from the Munich Olympics of 1972 (photo “b”); Jesse Owens on the awards stand at Berlin in 1936 (photo “d”); and  the “Miracle on Ice” of 1980 (photo “f”). You might not have recognized the photo of the bloodied Hungarian water polo player from the 1956 Melbourne Games (photo “g”), but suffice to say that feelings ran high in the Hungary vs. Soviet Union match a few weeks after the Soviets’ brutal invasion of Hungary.

But what about those two color photographs above, (c) and (e)? What political statement was being made in those? If you didn’t recognize those, don’t worry – you’re not alone. The two color photos represent, respectively, the Olympic boycotts of the 1980 (photo “c”) and 1984 (photo “e”) Games, and the reason you don’t recognize them is that those boycotts were singularly ineffective at delivering a political message. For everything the 1980 and 1984 Olympic boycotts actually accomplished, photos (c) and (e) might just as well have looked like this:



There has been talk lately in various circles about the possibility and indeed even the advisability of a boycott of some kind or other targeting the Beijing Olympic Games to be held in August. The intent of such a boycott would be to call attention to China’s dismal human rights record, and to deny the host country an opportunity to use the Games as a propaganda tool which would cite participation in the Olympics as a validation of China’s government by the world community.

Before we go any further, let’s stipulate to a few things right here first:

(1) China is a repressive regime with an abysmal record on human rights, including but not limited to the totally unwarranted and invasion and repressive occupation of Tibet;

(2) the Beijing Olympics will go on as scheduled; and

(3) bringing more attention to the plight of the victims of China’s human rights abuses is better than bringing less attention to those victims.

Can we all agree to all three of those? Terrific.

Now, given those three facts, if the intent of human-rights activists is to call the world’s attention to the abusive policies of the Chinese government, then those activists should bear in mind a very simple yet very true aphorism amply illustrated by the “photo quiz” that opened our diary today. That aphorism is –

Out of sight, out of mind.

A bit of history:

In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, President Jimmy Carter in response called for a boycott of the 1980 Games to be held in Moscow. At the time Carter called for the boycott  the United States’ reputation abroad was at a low ebb. A few months earlier, 52 Americans had been taken hostage by Iranian militants. The possibilities for their release were very remote.

Carter put teeth into his boycott proclamation by threatening to revoke the passport of any U.S. athlete who participated in the Games and to rescind the U.S. Olympic Committee’s tax-exempt status if it did not support the boycott. In April 1980, the USOC voted to go along with Carter’s boycott. (Ultimately, 57 other countries joined the U.S. in refusing to participate in the Games.)

In late April 1980, a couple of weeks after the USOC voted to affirm the boycott, an attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages by conducting a daring Entebbe-style airborne raid ended in debacle in the middle of the Iranian desert. The tragic episode served only to add to the image of the U.S. in general and the Carter administration in particular as inept and ineffectual.

In the end, of course (speaking of inept and ineffectual), the Olympic boycott did nothing to hasten the Soviets’ departure from Afghanistan. Much more effective were the Stinger missiles provided to the mujahideen by the Reagan administration; after the expenditure of much blood and treasure, the last Soviet soldier left the country in February 1989nine years after the American-led boycott.

So, given that the 1980 Olympic boycott had absolutely no effect on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, just exactly what effect did it have? Who did the boycott most affect? Why, Olympic hopefuls, of course. The flip side of the ineffectiveness of an Olympic boycott as a means of protest is the toll it extracts on those athletes who are denied the opportunity to compete, all to no avail whatsoever. One example:

The 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow had a particularly special significance to the United States women’s swimming team. After the shellacking they had unfairly received at the hands of the steroid-enhanced East German women at the 1976 Games in Montreal, the American women had regrouped to assemble a fresh crop of young athletes, the likes of which had never been assembled before: Tracy Caulkins, Mary T. Meagher, Cynthia Woodhead, Linda Jezek, Joan Pennington, Kim Linehan – these drug-free Americans had demolished the East German women at the 1978 World Swimming Championships, the “halfway point” between the 1976 and 1980 Olympics. The 1980 Games in Moscow were to be the scene of their ultimate vindication, to be played out in front of the same worldwide audience that had seen their humiliation just four years earlier.

But, of course, that vindication never took place. The opportunity for Good Ol’ American Hard Work And Ingenuity to triumph over Evil Totalitarian Dehumanizing Cheating was yanked out from under the American women’s swim team – and, for that matter, from under every American Olympic athlete. The world was the poorer for it – particularly since absolutely no benefit whatsoever was realized from their sacrifice.

So – given that as boycott is utterly ineffectual (in fact, is laughably lame) as a vehicle for delivering a message, what then is possible for those who wish to call the world’s attention to China’s record on human rights?

Simple: Use the Olympics’ tremendous popularity as a weapon.

The worldwide media exposure given to the Olympics every four years is nothing short of mind-boggling. The TV audience for the Games makes the Super Bowl, the World Cup and the Tour de France look like the Indiana girls’ state field hockey championships by comparison.

Imagine being able to direct those billions of eyes – literally – to your cause.

Boycotting the Games would eliminate that possibility, which is why it is such a bad idea.

Instead, at every opportunity, at every press conference, on every medal stand – in short, whenever possible, participants and dignitaries at the Beijing Games should turn the power of the Games against the Chinese government, and remind the world over and over and over again about the Chinese government’s awful record on human rights.

That is how you use the Olympic Games to make a political statement.

Rather than abandoning the field to the very slimeballs whose atrocious policies they are trying to call attention to, human-rights activists should instead queer the pitch by using the unequaled exposure the Games themselves provide to deliver their message. Think of it as public-relations jujitsu: turning your opponent’s size and strength against him.

And here’s one way to do it:

Imagine the entire U.S. contingent marching in to the opening ceremonies, every member of the delegation wearing something that symbolizes the struggle for human rights in China. Think of the media exposure that would generate, the conversations that would be started, the embarrassment that would cause the Chinese government.

But – oops – the International Olympic Committee has already planned for that contingency, and has headed the U.S. off at the pass. From the Olympic Charter (PDF file):

51 Advertising, Demonstrations, Propaganda


3. No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.

Bye-law [sic] to Rule 51

1. No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games, except for the identification – as defined in paragraph 8 below – of the manufacturer of the article or equipment concerned, provided that such identification shall not be marked conspicuously for advertising purposes . . .

Any violation of the provisions of the present clause may result in disqualification or withdrawal of the accreditation of the person concerned. The decisions of the IOC Executive Board regarding this matter shall be final.

Curses! Foiled again!

But wait – maybe not. Hmmm, this is interesting – from Bye-laws [sic] to Rule 51:

The uniforms of the competitors and of all persons holding an official position may include the flag or Olympic emblem of their NOC [National Olympic Committee] or, with the consent of the OCOG, the OCOG Olympic emblem.

I’m getting an idea here . . .

Wait a tick . . .

The NOCs perform the following tasks:


They have the sole and exclusive authority to prescribe and determine the clothing and uniforms to be worn, and the equipment to be used, by the members of their delegations on the occasion of the Olympic Games and in connection with all sports competitions and ceremonies related thereto.

That’s it! Got it!

Check this out:

What if the U.S. Olympic Committee were to decide that its new flag were to bear an uncanny similarity to – well, whaddaya know? – the Tibetan flag? (Temporarily, of course; the USOC could revert back to the U.S. flag on, oh, say, the day after closing ceremonies.)

What if, as a result of that decision, every athlete in the U.S. delegation had the new, improved “USOC flag” sewn right onto their uniform? What if every U.S.  cyclist had that flag on their helmet? What if every U.S. boxer had that flag on their trunks? What if every U.S. runner had that flag on their singlet?

What if Michael Phelps had that flag on his swim cap?

So here’s what human-rights activists should do: Urge the U.S. Olympic Committee to adopt the Tibetan flag as its own flag.  Then, urge the USOC to include the Tibetan flag on the uniform of every US athlete at the Games.  Talk to each of the national governing bodies for the Olympic sports, and convince them to do the same; for example, ask United States swimming to include the Tibetan flag – or, excuse me, the USOC flag – on the swim caps of every member of the U.S. team.

Then, sit back and watch the fun.  Let the magic of the corporate media do its work.  Think of the air time the Tibetan flag will get – the media buzz will start long before the opening ceremonies, will continue during the opening ceremonies as cameras zoom in on the Tibetan flag being worn by every member of the United States team, and will continue throughout the Games as the conversation about the reason for the flag on the U.S. uniforms is discussed ad nauseum, in that special way, that “up-close-and-personal” way, that only Olympic hysteria makes possible. (I know, I know: why should it take an Olympic Games for our major media to investigate human rights conditions in China?  It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.)

That is how you leverage the exposure of the Olympic Games, and use it against the host country.  That is how you get your message out: by showing up on the enemy’s turf, and using their perceived advantage against them.

So – what’s it gonna be? Boycott? Or subversive media jujitsu?

Which will be more effective:

Michael Phelps, sitting at home in his living room, watching the finals of the 200-meter butterfly?


Michael Phelps, wearing a cap emblazoned with the Tibetan flag, winning the 200-meter butterfly in world record time?

And, just so we’re clear, for the United States as a nation to object to China’s civil rights record might, particularly in light of choices made and actions taken by our government over the past eight years, smack more than a little of hypocrisy (as so deftly pointed out by cakaul in a diary yesterday).

But just as there is certainly no lack of politics at the Olympic Games, neither is hypocrisy in short supply. To wit:

Given its arbitrary, reactionary, elitist, old-fashioned behavior in the past, it would not be at all surprising for the IOC to attempt to punish severely any athlete who dares to remind the world while at an Olympic venue of China’s abysmal human rights record.

But at the very least, such an action on the part of the IOC would further point up the hypocrisy of the organization. After all, at the very front of the Olympic Charter, before any of the rules or regulations or bye-laws [sic], appears this lofty-sounding language:

Fundamental Principles of Olympism


5. Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

6. Belonging to the Olympic Movement requires compliance with the Olympic Charter and recognition by the IOC.

And yet – here we are, in Beijing, being hosted by a country clearly in violation of paragraph 5 of the Fundamental Principles of Olympism as espoused in the Olympic Charter, yet one which the IOC has embraced as “belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Better make sure your own house is in order, IOC, before you go casting anyone else out.

To contribute to Human Rights Watch

Contact the U.S. Olympic Committee

(USOC Board of Directors – PDF file)

Also available in Orange


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  1. Hell, even the Dalai Lama opposes a boycott.

    Here’s another gem from the Olympic Charter. Bye-law [sic} to Rule 49:

    Only those persons accredited as media may act as journalists, reporters or in any other media capacity. Under no circumstances, throughout the duration of the Olympic Games, may any athlete, coach, official, press attaché or any other accredited participant act as a journalist or in any other media capacity.

    Huh – so what do you suppose they’ll do when Michael Phelps makes an entry on his FaceBook page?

    For a bit more on the 1980 boycott in retrospect, there’s this and this.

    Thanks for reading!

  2. I hope you’re not advocating (b) as the alternative to a Beijing Olympics boycott. Yes, it made a political statement, but it was wrong.

  3. with Dr.John Carlos ( who I believe is now a guidance counselor ) and essentially, that was not a spontaneously act but one that was pondered and weighed and while there was a component of black consciousness, he quite clearly said in the interview that they were interested and active in discussions about broader human rights concerns.

  4. athletes can exercise their free speech rights on Friday.

    That being said, I’m perfectly good with a boycott of the opening ceremonies. Seriously. Is there a substantial difference between Bush in a photo op at the opening ceremonies and Bush not in a photo op at the opening ceremonies?

    In other words – I’d argue they’re both a blank photo.

  5. because i think its sad to put this kind of political pressure on (mostly) amateur athletes…

    and because i still believe in putting politics aside and celebrating the games as an ‘innocent’ competition…

    that said, i was outraged when bejiing was ‘awarded’ the games, and agree that there nothing ‘innocent’ about it…ignoring that wastes a great opportunity and global audience..

    …but americans hardly have the moral high-ground here…and pretending they (we) do only makes us look more like hypocrites than spreading democracy at the point of a gun does…

    sigh…that fence is really starting to chafe…

  6. Very well argued and I couldn’t agree more.

    The boycott of the Moscow Olympics only hurt our athletes – it didn’t save any lives.  A friend of mine,

    Karin LaBerge, was only 16 when she made the 1980 Olympic swimming team, and just missed a spot in 1984 at the ripe old age of 20.  She is now a world class triathlete, but she will never get over having her dream stolen over symbolism and ideology.

  7. For this torough, accurate report on the IOC, the protests, and the athletes.

    I will do what I can, with the few contacts I have, to suggest that the NOC adopt the Tibetan flag as part of their logos.

    But, from my experience of the IOC and NOC, I believe that they are even more entrenched and retro in their draconian authoritarianism than even GWB!

    In hopes for a fairer world, without all this political folderol…

    • Mu on April 10, 2008 at 06:53

    You know me by my orange name.  There no more.  Please don’t hesitate to continue stopping by here when the silly poo-flinging at orange brings you down.  

    I grudgingly admit that I think Hil’s idea ain’t bad:  top officials (esp. Bush) should find “scheduling conflicts” that keep them from the Opening Ceremony.  Otherwise, I think that your point is a very well made one.

    Mu . . .

  8. GWB and the US athletes.  The athletes really are us (we the

    people)…. Maybe this great idea of yours, OH, is really

    a way to show the world that we’re NOT the deciders, we’re the

    human side of America.

    • RUKind on April 10, 2008 at 07:45

    I couldn’t help but think while reading your excellent,as blue calls them, essay:

    Before we go any further, let’s stipulate to a few things right here first:

    (1) America is a repressive regime with an abysmal record on human rights, including but not limited to the totally unwarranted invasions and ongoing repressive occupations of Iraq and Iran;

    (2) the Chicago Olympics will go on as scheduled; and

    (3) bringing more attention to the plight of the victims of America’s human rights abuses is better than bringing less attention to those victims.

    Can we all agree to all three of those? Terrific.

    And all the while picturing President McCain, at the end of his second term, being wheeled into the stadium to preside over the opening ceremonies by the Republican Party nominee, Richard B. Cheney.

    Only in America!!!

    • Valtin on April 10, 2008 at 08:18

    Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.

    How would you like it if the Chinese or the Russians came wearing hats emblazoned with the Palestinian flag? Or how about a boycott based on the fact the U.S. kidnapped hundreds of Muslims from Afghanistan and took them to be tortured and/or held without hope of release, and all because of their religious profession? Or how about if someone looked at how many African American males are imprisoned in the U.S. per capita and decided to wear some pan-Africanist flag?

    All pretty absurd, yes? How about a boycott of any Olympics where the U.S. sends a team because its country has illegally invaded another sovereign country and is responsible for the destruction of much of their national cultural artifacts, and the deaths of 100,000s?

    Oops. That’s us! The ones who want to have a boycott/protest! Boy, are we moral. Yeah, we’ll look good with those Tibetan caps on our heads.

    Forgive the sarcasm, but I ask all to not forget that the U.S. has committed crimes on a mass and criminal scale. The American people even re-elected the President that was responsible. Those who live in glass houses…

    And to make matters worse, none of this will help the Tibetans in their fight to have greater autonomy vis-a-vis China. If there were really any chance, then I might have written a different comment.  

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