In an opinion piece published Thursday in The Globe and Mail, the CEOs of the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee laid out their case for competing at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games.
No one with a say in such things has yet suggested they shouldn’t do that. But in the piece, they mention “rumblings of a proposed boycott.”
Boycott. It’s a hot word right now. It almost never turns out the way you’d planned, but people love the sound of it.
The Olympics created the mother of all boycotts – Moscow 1980.
The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan the year before. The United States believed it could shame the Kremlin into withdrawing by refusing to attend its summer party, then forced all its friends and dependents to do likewise.
The result was very like Canada’s COVID-19 action plan – an incoherent mish-mash of half-measures and symbolic gestures amounting to little but frustration for all involved.
Many countries, including this one, joined the U.S. walkout. But it was hard to say whether they did so because they were angry at Russia, intimidated by America, or some combination thereof.
Taiwan took a powder because China wouldn’t permit it to compete under its own name, while China stayed home to tick off everyone else.
Belgium and France boycotted the opening ceremonies, but not the Games themselves. Ireland and Britain sent only one person to the opening ceremonies, but fobbed the decision on whether to compete onto its individual athletes. Australia and Denmark competed under the Olympic flag rather than their own.
The boycott is remembered now as a monolithic Cold War showdown between East and West. In reality, it was more like a wedding between two fractious clans. A bunch of the Hatfields refused to wear a shirt and tie, but they still made sure to be there when the McCoys were opening the bar.
If the point of the boycott was pressing the Soviets to leave Afghanistan, it failed. In fact, it may have hardened Soviet resolve to extend a losing war, bleeding the USSR of a subsequent decade’s worth of blood and treasure.
Some people would call that a win. Those people would not be Afghans. From the local perspective, the boycott did nothing to stop a continuing humanitarian disaster, one that led the world straight into 9/11 and all the misery that followed.
What did we learn from it?
First, short of giving the boycotter a thrill of righteousness, Olympic boycotts don’t work. Second, that if you’re going to play geopolitics, don’t ask a bunch of high-jumpers and ice dancers to do it for you. That’s not their job.
But neither is high-jumping or ice dancing. Not at its essence.
Olympic athletes are, first and foremost, public servants. The quid pro quo for all that sweet taxpayer-funded development money is not winning medals. It is representing Canada while the world watches.
How our Olympic athletes carry themselves is as important as what they do on the field of play. They are ambassadors for the national brand.
They are also powerful tools for good. If you invite someone into your home, it is difficult to ill treat them. Every person has this instinct, even the surly ones. If you resist this essential etiquette – say, in the way Nazi Germany treated Jesse Owens – it will more surely cause you to lose the global room than any amount of internal terror.
Holding an Olympics also gets people really thinking about you in a concentrated way for a few weeks.
The simplistic view of that level of attention is that it equals accordance. That if you see a few panoramic drone shots of Red Square set to Vivaldi, you immediately believe Russia is a wonderful place led by compassionate people.
That view assumes viewers are stupid. I’d suggest they are capable of holding two opposing ideas at once – that watching the Sochi Games is fun, and that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is wrong.
At this moment in history, attention equals scrutiny. Once you invite the world’s media over, people who might not otherwise have cared will begin to wonder what the deal is with those re-education camps they heard something about.
China will play host to the Winter Games, but it doesn’t get to determine the tone of coverage. Russia learned at Sochi 2014 that grabbing the world’s full attention isn’t a barrel of monkeys. Eight years later, that effect will be amplified.
With all that in mind, of course Canada should compete at Beijing 2022. Just as assuredly, China ought to release Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been jailed in China for nearly two years. The two things are compatible goals, the latter made more likely by the atmosphere of conciliation created by the former.
What the COC and CPC op-ed neglects to mention is the International Olympic Committee’s role in all this. The Olympics’ overseer should not get to have its cake and muzzle it, too. If the IOC has the right to link arms with dictatorships, its employees-by-proxy ought to have a parallel right to take issue with that.
Rule 50.2 of the Olympic Charter says, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted” at a Games. The inclusion of “racial” is a clever touch, as if to suggest the rule is about eliminating bigotry.
What it in fact does is safeguard a marketable Olympics, the kind the IOC is anxious to sell to sponsors. It wants the stories simple and sanitized – underdog triumphs, long journey completed, losing with dignity.
The situation the IOC signed the rest of the world up for in Beijing isn’t simple. Which is why the COC and CPC are forced to start getting ahead of it a year out.
If the IOC doesn’t like demonstrations, perhaps it ought not get itself involved in situations that cry out for them.
But that does not change the Canadian equation. Let the Games go ahead. Let Canadian athletes participate fully. Let Ottawa do its best to leverage whatever goodwill comes out of the Olympics to effect good works for those suffering in China. And let principled protest by individuals moved to do so go unhindered, at least by the Canadian sports establishment.
As Canadians, we can’t control what other nations do. Boycotts don’t change that.
What we can control is how we comport ourselves on the international stage, and how we project our collective values of fairness, equality and simple kindness out into the world.
But we can’t do those things if we don’t leave home.