Eric Morse is a retired Canadian diplomat, and an active member of the Royal Canadian Military Institute. He was involved in the 1980 Moscow boycott campaign with the Canadian Department of External Affairs.
In 1980, it took a cornered U.S. president to spark an Olympic boycott. This time, a vanished women’s tennis star might be enough to trigger another one. But Moscow 1980 and Beijing 2022 are very different beasts, and the idea now being floated of a “diplomatic boycott” – letting the athletes go, but withholding any government presence – is on the one hand frankly wimpy, and on the other, very dangerous. Dangerous, that is, for the athletes.
Compared with the 1980 boycott, the issue has come to the fore late in the day – the Games start Feb. 4 – and was triggered by the suspicious disappearance for some weeks of Peng Shuai, a Chinese women’s tennis star, who made accusations of sexual assault against a former Chinese vice-premier. Oddly enough, tennis isn’t even a Winter Olympic sport.
There is a lot more to it, of course. For the past couple of years, there have been scattered calls for an Olympic boycott over the abusive Chinese treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. But there were similar scattered calls for a Moscow boycott before 1980. A catalyst is needed. In 1980, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
This time, the catalyst may be Ms. Peng. The Women’s Tennis Association has displayed an unexpectedly short fuse and a great deal of guts by threatening to pull out of China over the incident. It has certainly elevated attention to White House levels. (Ms. Peng has since reappeared on assorted Chinese media in Beijing and had a video call with a senior IOC official, all under circumstances that are notably questionable and Women’s Tennis, for one, isn’t buying it.)
Until last week, U.S. President Joe Biden had not gotten behind any idea of a Beijing boycott. That changed during the North American Leaders’ Summit in Washington, when Mr. Biden said the U.S. was considering a boycott, but one that would still let the athletes compete. What Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks of this is still unclear.
The Moscow 1980 boycott took much longer to gather steam. The Soviets walked into Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. That drew an immediate boycott call from NATO defence chiefs but didn’t get real traction for a couple of weeks. But U.S. president Jimmy Carter was already in a domestic bind over the Iranian crisis, and by Jan. 14, he and Canadian prime minister Joe Clark had called for a boycott (formally declared by Mr. Carter March 20) and begun cutting commercial ties with the USSR.
Of course, it didn’t stop the Russians in Afghanistan. Boycotts are a symbolic gesture and no one should think otherwise. But 80 per cent of diplomacy is symbolic (the rest is largely heavy armaments and cold hard cash). The problem is, if you are going to indulge in this kind of symbology you had better consider the nastier side effects and be prepared to deal with them.
The difference between 1980 and now? The word “hostages” wasn’t even in the atmosphere of international relations. Mr. Carter was indeed facing a hostage crisis in Tehran at the time, but that was unrelated except insofar as it increased domestic pressure to show strength elsewhere.
We almost took some accidental ones when Mr. Carter cut the Aeroflot flights to Moscow, but some plain and fancy string-pulling by mid-level officials in Ottawa got the cultural and sport groups out through Montreal. No Westerners in the Soviet Union were ever troubled. The Soviets were rankled enough to counter-boycott in 1984, but hostage taking was definitely out of bounds.
Forty years later, hostage-taking is very much a factor. China has been acting more than aggressively whenever it feels its face is threatened and has shown it will stop at nothing to retaliate against real or imagined slights. Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was followed by China’s detention of the two Michaels, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
IOC member in Canada, Dick Pound, who also went through the events of 1980, has said that the current situation could spin out of control very easily. If anything, he’s understating.
Half a provocation is a provocation still. Think of our young people in the place of the two Michaels and ask whether the risk to them is worth it. When observers are beginning to wonder increasingly whether travel to China is safe, we should not take the risk of shovelling Canadian athletes into the wolf warrior’s maw. There should be a boycott indeed, but if Canada is to go that route, it must be all or nothing.
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