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3 April 2008 Edition

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Matt Treacy

Let the Games go on

THE recent resurgence of resistance by people in Tibet to the Chinese dictatorship has once again raised the issue of a boycott of the Olympics to be held there in August.
Already the handing over of the flame in Greece has been the scene of protests and these are likely to increase as the games draw closer and Tibetans and others attempt to capitalise on the massive attention that will be on China for the next four months.
There have been consistent but unavailing calls for a boycott of Beijing ever since the Chinese were awarded the games but they have evoked little international response, either at government level or generally politically. In recent weeks, however, events in Tibet have given the campaign some impetus with French President Nicolas Sarkozy the most prominent figure to indicate that he might be in favour of such a move.
Some supporters of the boycott have referred back to the Berlin Olympics of 1936 which Hitler attempted to turn into a showcase for Nazi totalitarianism. Should another totalitarian regime now be allowed do the same? On the other hand, opponents of a boycott, and of sports boycotts in general, point to the fact that probably the most iconic image of Berlin is not the Leni Riefenstahl film Olympia but  Jesse Owens upsetting the Aryan myth by winning four gold medals.
There was actually an attempted boycott of Berlin, mainly focused on the United States and supported by the Communist Party. The Soviet Union was not yet part of the Olympic movement and did not take part in any games until 1952 but it obviously approved of the stance taken by the communist parties in other countries.
Incidentally, Ireland did not send a team but that had nothing to do with a boycott. It was because the International Amateur Athletics Federation refused to recognise the Irish federation, NACA (which is in itself a very interesting tale related to the politics of the period).  A number of Irish-born athletes did, however, win medals competing for other countries.


THE next Olympics that were affected by political events were the 1956 games in Melbourne, which followed soon after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Suez crisis. Holland, Spain and Switzerland withdrew in solidarity with the Hungarians while Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq refused to take part over Suez.
The most famous event of the games was a water polo match between the USSR and Hungary. The Hungarians, all of whom had fled over the border while training, engaged in an early version of the ‘sledging’ we discussed a few weeks back. All the more effective as Hungarian children had been forced to learn Russian in school. Anyway, the game was abandoned because of fighting between the players but the Hungarians were awarded the game having been 4-0 ahead.
Everyone likes the Italians, or certainly ought to, so there was no boycott of Rome in 1960. Likewise Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico in 1968. The latter, however, were almost cancelled following the killing of 300 protestors by police 10 days before. Mexico was also the scene of the famous ‘black power’ salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medallists in the 200 metres. Both were suspended from the US team but otherwise their careers did not suffer.
Not so fortunate was Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska who, in protest at the Soviet invasion of her country, bowed her head and averted her eyes during the playing of the Soviet anthem. Unlike Smith and Carlos, Caslavska suffered greatly for her brave gesture. She was forced out of sport and banned from foreign travel and contacts until the late 1980s. And, unlike Smith and Carlos, who became icons of the student left, there were no T-shirts or protests for Vera suffering silently in the squalor of a Stalinist police state.


TWENTY-EIGHT African countries boycotted Montreal because the New Zealand rugby team had played South Africa. And, of course, in 1980 the United States organised a boycott by 62 countries of the Moscow games following the invasion of Afghanistan. Not to be outdone the Soviet Union retaliated in 1984 when the games were held in Los Angeles but only 13 of its closest chums supported the boycott.
There was no boycott of Seoul in 1988 except by North Korea, which was probably afraid that most of the team wouldn’t come home. And with the end of the Soviet Union the threat of boycotts appeared to have disappeared. In reality there is little chance that anyone will not turn up in Beijing and the pro-boycott campaign does not have much in the way of popular support.
Criticism of China has increased lately, however, and German Chancellor Merkel has said she will not attend the opening ceremony. That might yet become a form of protest which might be a bit embarrassing for this country given Dick Roche’s abject display while in China soliciting on behalf of Irish bosses a few weeks ago. I suppose they could always hope that they mightn’t be noticed.
Crucially, the United States have ruled out a boycott on the grounds that it would constitute an insult to the Chinese people! This is perhaps apart altogether from the fact that they discern some definitive moral difference between the murderous Beijing regime and others that may have been as malign in ambition although hardly in the sheer scale of achievement. Nothing whatsoever to do with the Hang Seng obviously.
Personally, I don’t believe that sports people who have spent years training for the Olympics should be expected to bear the moral responsibility for expressing rightful opposition to the Chinese regime. And I don’t believe that sport should be made a sacrificial lamb when states and businesses are willing to trade with a regime that sells goods produced by labour camp slaves.
And apart from that, there is no evidence that any of the boycotts of other sporting events achieved anything. Let the Games go on.

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