The Extra Mile

Do Olympic Boycotts Achieve Anything?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

"If not now, when? If not us, who?"

Those ringing words, generally attributed to Robert F. Kennedy, are today applicable to the growing momentum for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics.

In the past week, European leaders have talked openly about a boycott in response to China's repressive actions this month in Tibet. Political leaders in France, Australia, Norway and Germany have suggested skipping the opening ceremonies; Eastern European leaders from the Czech Republic, Poland and Estonia already have said they won't attend.

Because of China's complicity with the genocide in Darfur, talk of a boycott, led most prominently by Mia Farrow, had already been an unhappy Olympic undercurrent. Even earlier rumblings of international unease can be traced to China's repression of the Falun Gong.

The Olympics, of course, is China's stage from which to project world leadership, culture and a successful way of life. Sport, it is argued, is a mere tool in that process.

While no Olympics is ever solely about athletics -- the mere mention of the Berlin, Mexico City and Munich quadrennials conjures indelible political imagery -- idealism and international competition remain the core of any Games. A boycott, in whatever form, diminishes and tarnishes that goal.

Certainly that was the aim and result of President Carter's boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. But as Paul Simon said, no nation can outrun the history train: Reichs fall, cultures adapt and poor economic models collapse, largely irrespective of protests and boycotts.

Renaldo Nehemiah, the gold medal favorite in the hurdles prior to the Moscow Games, knows well the nullity achieved by a boycott. "Nothing was accomplished by our boycott in 1980," Nehemiah said. "It was very disheartening, using sport as a way to achieve political ends. . . . It was difficult for me personally. I was 21 years old and the best in the world, but I've never walked into an Olympic stadium as an athlete, and that's still hard. It took a lot of years before I could even talk about it."

* OVER THE HILLS: More than 7,000 women are registered for the More Magazine Marathon, open only to women over 40, and the half marathon, two-person teams, one over 40, on April 6 in New York's Central Park.

-- Jim Hage

hagej@washpost.com


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