Thursday, 3 April 2008

Olympic boycott?

It might equally shock you to know that once again, I'm going to agree with Ms Dugdale on something else that she proposes. With the Olympic torch due to arrive in London, there are suggestions that, in order to make a (symbolic) point about China's appalling human rights record, the PM should wear an orange tie, a colour associated with the Tibetan monks whose protests have been brutally subdued. I think he should not only do that - but go further and put more pressure on China.

Now, I have not - yet - made any comment about either China, Tibet or the upcoming Olympic Games, for a number of reasons. But there has been so much said about the topic I have to stick my tuppance worth in.

The idea of boycotting the Olympics is an idea for which I have an incredible amount of sympathy for. I understand that the Olympics is for athletes what the World Cup Final is for footballers or a Presidential election is to politicians, the pinacle of their career. But what is the point of reaching the pinacle of your chosen activity if you have to abandon principles to get there? It seems to me that, while the boycotts in the past have had more to do with politics (Cold War mentality) than anything else, this time the reason for a boycott is much greater - there are human lives at stake.

I applaud Steven Spielberg for his stance, and George Clooney for speaking out. But the Games will still go ahead if all the athletes turn a blind eye to China's human rights violations and turn up to compete. I'm not accusing our sporting stars of being spineless or anything, but it does appear to me that people who are role models for future generations have more than just a responsibility to themselves to go to the Olympics and do their best - they have a responsibility to those that look up to them too. Its time they took that responsibility a bit more seriously and looked at the wider picture. What matters more - the opportunity to go down in history as someone who won gold at the Olympics or someone who took a principled stance against one large nation and their awful human rights record?

Of course, with China set to become an economic powerhouse, other states, large and small, powerful and not, are tripping over themselves not to offend them. The IOC must've known that giving China the Games would cause such a political fuss, but to deny them would have caused offence. But that decision was taken some time ago, and now the decision to compete rests not with politicians but athletes. I applauded English cricketers during the Cricket World Cup when they refused to play Zimbabwe because of the political situation there - and forfeited points because of it. That was a case where the plight of people in a foreign land mattered to sporting heroes, and they took a principled stance, defied the principle that sport and politics should not mix and boycotted Zimbabwe. And while it never removed Mugabe from power, nor did it do anything substantial to help the situation in the country, it sent a powerful message. Similarly, stopping apartheid South Africa competing in international sports slowly changed the way that nation saw itself.

Sporting heroes have a role to play as ambassadors not only for their sport or their country, but for humanity. Human rights are being ignored. Refusing to compete at the Olympics would show China that these violations will no longer be ignored.

Rant over.


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