How Olympic Boycotts Are A Complete Lose-Lose Situation
Under normal circumstances, I would be working overseas right now.
No, these normal circumstances are not referring to the absence of the coronavirus. Rather, these normal circumstances are referring to a time with less geo-political tensions.
Don’t be stupid, there always are. Okay, I concede that it is impossible for the world to be in full harmony 24/7. But I have never seen foreign relations deteriorate to this low a level, with no signs that countries are willing to find common ground.
I had secured a job after graduation, when a country’s embassy suddenly was forced to close. No problem, my new employer assured us, the job could still be performed online. Even if it meant adjusting to another time zone, I was looking forward to starting the work. But then restrictions affected online interaction, effectively shutting down our back-up plans. To its credit, my new employer tried everything, to find other ways around the restrictions and seeking exemptions. The U.S.- imposed technology restrictions, though, had depleted any options. Before I knew it, I became political collateral of this seemingly infinite war of restriction, sanction-slapping, and mutual suspicion.
I will never forget the immediate dread and depression upon learning that my new job overseas was no longer available. Even though the world was not physically collapsing around me, I felt it really was. For an opportunity to be taken away from me by increasing geo-political tensions — it is something I still am struggling to get over.
Then another thought came to mind.
This is how the athletes of Olympic-boycotting nations must have felt. No say over a decision that they had no control over.
Fortunately, I have other options. Others, unfortunately and unfairly, have already lost theirs. Now, with news of others threatening to boycott the 2022 Olympics due to the Xinjiang repression circulating, another cohort of the world’s best athletes is in danger of losing their opportunities as well.
Most textbooks portray the1980 Moscow Olympics boycott as something done for the greater good. However, they fail to mention, as IOC President Thomas Bach pointed out in a recent op-ed to The Guardian, that it not only triggered the boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, but also had no influence on the Soviet troops’ presence in Afghanistan, which would extend to the end of that decade.
While many fail to mention the sentiments of the athletes who lost the opportunity to compete when their countries boycotted the Olympic games, The Washington Post and the New York Post sought to gain the affected athletes’ perspectives. The negativity from boycotting the 1980 Games still resonates today for many athletes, even after forty years. One athlete best summed the boycott up as a “death of a loved one” — a sentiment many of his would-be teammates share after struggling to overcome the grief of it.
Those in favor of a boycott think that it sends a convincing message to the hosts to end whatever injustice they are committing. Boycotts have not only been historically ineffective, but also hurt athletes who have no relation at all to the conflict in question. As an athlete’s career is typically short, one Olympics may be the only chance they have to test themselves against the world’s best. For example, close to half of the 1980 Team USA squad failed to qualify for their home Olympics four years later. It should also be noted that President Jimmy Carter, who pushed for the boycott, later admitted it was a mistake. The then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, David Jones, also eventually confessed “that [not] one human life will be saved if [the U.S. athletes did not] to Moscow.” Even if a boycott happens and is a political victory to one, it will always remain a loss to those who had no choice but to not compete.
Several, however, are convinced that sacrificing athletes and their opportunities would be probable and effective. Many of those who condemned the Xinjiang detentions are also typically Winter Olympic sporting powers. Yet this trait intersection do not mean a boycott will occur. Forty-three of the nations who condemned the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan at a United Nations assembly earlier that year had delegations compete in Moscow anyways. Most interesting to note is that even though they were the ones invaded, Afghanistan had athletes compete there as well.
Critics also argue Beijing is worth boycotting because it won its 2022 bid with little competition, but so did Los Angeles in winning its 2028 one — the interest in hosting an Olympic Games has been low in recent years. Interning the Uighurs should warrant an Olympic boycott, they argue. Ironically, the U.S. did the same to Japanese-Americans as a result of the Pearl Harbor bombing. In each case, both of the imprisoned were perceived to be threats, and unjustly so. However, protesting the mistreatment of others, by denying their own athletes opportunities, is an ineffective strategy, and at best, undemocratic. The fact that twenty-five athletes of the would-be 1980 games filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee, arguing that the boycott violated their constitutional rights, is proof of this.
Yet some, supposedly for others’ rights, sought other options, requesting the Olympics to be moved to another city. This, however, is impossible given the amount of time remaining until the actual event. There is a reason Olympics are chosen at least seven years before the actual event takes place. For one, building infrastructure, transportation, planning competitions and ceremonies, recruiting staff and volunteers, and other logistics cannot be accomplished in less a year, especially for a global-scale event. For another, delegates from the incumbent host city must be present at closing ceremonies to accept the flag-handover.
Criticisms so far have solely originated from politicians. It is far easier to demand a ban when they are not the ones who voluntarily dedicate their lives and bodies to sport, nor in a short-lasting — but rewarding — career whose opportunities are few.
Opponents also have not considered that very much like in the 1980’s, the U.S. is also due to host the Summer Olympics after. In the 1980’s, the Soviet Union retaliated with a boycott of their own while its military activity remained unchanged. The ongoing Trade War, the tit-for-tat embassy shutdown, and the fact nearly two dozen nations publicly opposed China’s Xinjiang activity to no avail suggests China is likely to do the same if boycotted .
Olympic boycotts do not only cost athletes competition and livelihood opportunities, but also a chance to even get noticed at all. One of the best things about the Olympic Games is that it has successfully introduced already well-established legends such as Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, and Marit Bjørgen, and underdogs such as Gabrielle Douglas and Steven Bradbury alike to the world.
Regardless of their pre-Olympic resumé, the truth is without the Games no one would know who these champions are. A one-sport world championship would naturally not garner as much attention as the twenty-eight-strong Summer or seven-strong Winter Olympics.
Opportunities not only for international recognition but also to make peace could also be potentially lost. The Olympics is full of moments where athletes of opposing nations unite. In the 1936 Berlin games, Germany’s Lutz Long gave American Jesse Owens technical advice that would contribute to the latter’s victory. Owens would later state that his friendship with Long — yes, from someone whose nation was political enemies with his — was worth more than the medals he won. In the 2008 Beijing games, Russia’s Natalia Paderina and Georgia’s Nino Salukvadze embraced on the podium despite that their countries were combatting each other. Salukvadze later revealed that Georgia was close to withdrawing from the Games because of the conflict(Instead, Georgia was rewarded with seven medals, including Salukvadze’s.)
In the 2016 Rio games, North Korea’s Hong Un-Jong and South Korea’s Lee Eun-Ju took a selfie together while their countries as their countries’ political tensions heightened. This was just the beginning of the turn in relations between their nations, who would go on to compete as one in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. All have successfully demonstrated the power sportsmanship has over politics. All have also successfully demonstrated that people are worth more than the governments that rule them. It is true that these moments may not end whatever conflict their nations are embroiled in, but they can serve as strong starting points.
Without them, though, remains thousands of world-caliber athletes with opportunities lost, careers closed without warning, and thus still wondering what could have been. Long-standing grief. A president regretting his own decision. Retaliation. No human lives saved.
Is boycotting another Olympic Games worth it?
No one is obliged to agree with the hosts. But at least let the athletes compete there should they wish to.