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Olympic boycotts: Yes to athletes’ rights, but that’s not the point

The Winter Olympics in Beijing have begun, but not without controversy. Late last year the US, the UK, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, and others announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games. This is as it should be—well over a million people have been imprisoned in Xinjiang, many of whom have been forced into slavery.

Leading up to these announcements, the main question was whether liberal democracies should enact (a) a diplomatic boycott wherein only politicians don’t attend, or (b) a full boycott for which the athletes from said countries would be withdrawn from competition. I am glad they settled on the first option.

However, the surrounding conversation was almost always framed in terms of the rights of the athletes. Most of the participants dedicate many years of their lives entirely to their sport, with the ultimate goal of competing at the Olympics. For the record, I agree that respecting athletes’ sacrifice is one excellent reason against a full boycott, and I think those who disagree are revealing a lack of empathy. (I remember talking to some fellow scientists back in 2013. They were saying that, because of the shameful Russian anti-LGBT laws that had recently been enacted, they supported a full boycott of the Sochi games such that American athletes wouldn’t even compete. I remember thinking that the reason for their indifference was that it wasn’t their own profession—if there had been some legitimate human rights reason to refrain from submitting manuscripts to “prestige journals,” I’m sure their principles would have evaporated.)

But my main objection is that the purported purpose of the Olympics is never discussed!

We should ask ourselves, what does human civilization gain from the Olympics? Besides raw entertainment, what function do or can the Olympics have for the global “us”?

I’d like to answer this question with a cheesy movie monolog by Donald Sutherland. Before almost every high school track meet I ran, I used to watch a movie about Steve Prefontaine called Without Limits. The long (and in hindsight, corny) racing scenes provided a sufficient adrenaline hit. But the finest scene in the movie was the speech that Coach Bill Bowerman (played by Sutherland) gave to the American track and field team during the 1972 Munich Games, after 11 members of Israel’s Olympic team had been kidnapped and subsequently killed:

“This killing of Israeli athletes is an act of war. And if there’s one place that war doesn’t belong, it’s here. 1200 years. From 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., your fellow Olympians laid down their arms to take part in these games. They understood there was more honor in outrunning a man than in killing him. I hope the competition will resume, and if it does, you must not think that running… or throwing… or jumping… is frivolous. The games were once your fellow Olympians’ answer to war—competition, not conquest. Now, they must be your answer.”

Reading that still makes me tear up.

As far as I’m concerned, this is the main functional purpose of the Olympics. To prove that humans can win victoryies over each other without murdering each other. The symbolism is too powerful and too important, and full boycotts should be aggressively denounced.

You might disagree, thinking, Surely there’s some incident that would justify a full boycott? What if a country was fighting an actual war with the host country? I actually don’t see how that would change the argument. Even if two countries were at war, it would make it more important to go through with the symbolic theater of the Olympic games. A second counter might be that it seems disrespectful to have a sports competition while atrocities (e.g. neoslavery or a major war) are in progress. The Olympics were of course canceled during WWI and WWII for example. I understand the sentiment, but I maintain my position—the worse the war is, the more important the Olympic symbol of non-violent competition becomes. A third objection might be that we shouldn’t allow wicked governments to profit from the domestic propaganda boost that their national teams provide. To that I say, I’m not even sure that Olympians should be representing a particular country. Making national identity such a cornerstone of the Games does not add to their above-mentioned purpose. But I digress.

The choice to enact only a diplomatic boycott (not a full boycott) was the right one. But the reasoning for the decision seemed to be based only on respect for the athletes who dedicated countless hours to their particular craft. In my view, this is the wrong way to look at it. The main function of the Olympics is to demonstrate to ourselves that humankind can scratch its itch for triumphing over rivals, but without artillery, without exploded soldiers, without devastated families. In spite of—no, because of—the state of international politics, the competitions (not the conquests) must go on.


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