Olympic Ethics

Beijing a poor choice for Olympic host, but not worth a boycott

The Olympic Games open today in Beijing. The Jewish state is unlikely
to excel in grabbing Olympic medals (we made Foreign Policy magazine’s
short list of “The World’s Worst Olympians”), but we can still make a
respectable showing in Olympic ethics.

Before we examine particular questions regarding to the Beijing games,
it is worth saying a few words about the ethical standing of sport in
general. My belief is that the origin of sport is as a substitute for
combat, thus it has a very exalted ethical pedigree. We find in the
animal kingdom that when two rams, or two kangaroos, compete for
harems they don’t engage in a fight to the death but rather in a
butting or boxing competition of a fairly formal nature with clear
criteria for determining the victor. The loser slinks away embarrassed
but not dead, and lives to fight another day. Likewise, I believe that
human nations or tribes instinctively recognize that it is sometimes
of mutual advantage to resolve a conflict on the playing field instead
of the battlefield; this is probably why fans’ emotions run so high. A
variation on this is arranging single combat between champions instead
of a bloody mass battle between armies, as we find in the war between
Israel and the Philistines that was determined by the bizarre duel
between David and Goliath.

My take on prehistory may be a bit speculative, but if we go forward
from the dawn of mankind to the original Greek Olympic Games the
substitution of sport for war is a definite factor. The various Greek
city-states were often (almost constantly) at war, yet each
four-yearly Olympic games for over a thousand years was accompanied by
a prolonged truce enabling the games to take place.

The modern Olympic Games were founded with a similar noble goal, to
advance friendly relations among people of various nations through an
international sporting event. The object is to transcend politics, but
there are limits to how far politics can be transcended. Almost from
the beginning, the Games have also been used as a means of political
aggrandizement by participant countries, and by non-participant
countries in the case of a boycott. In the case of the current Beijing
Games, boycott advocates point to China’s record in propping up cruel
and corrupt regimes in places such as Burma and Sudan, and in
repressing free speech and dissidents at home. Dozens of countries
boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest over the USSR’s invasion
of Afghanistan; the Soviet bloc, in a fit of vindictive pique,
boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

The claim is made that allowing authoritarian countries to host, or to
participate in, the Olympic Games grants them international legitimacy
and emboldens them in their violation of human rights. I personally am
skeptical about the extent to which the threat of Olympic exclusion
deters authoritarian leaders, or authoritarian leaders exclusively,
and therefore believe that the threat of boycott or exclusion should
be used gingerly.

In particular, I would distinguish different types of unacceptable behavior.

I do agree that countries should be sanctioned for behavior that
inherently contradicts the Olympic ideal of free competition among
members of different nations. For example, South Africa did not allow
black athletes the opportunity to compete together with or on the same
basis as white athletes. This was probably one of the least repressive
policies of Apartheid, which was in itself probably less repressive
than the policies of many other governments in the world, but it was a
justified reason for excluding SA from the 1964 Olympics because it
touches directly on the Games themselves. Certainly Germany should
have been excluded from the 1936 Games for their policy of excluding
Jewish and Roma (Gypsy) athletes; obviously the Games should have been
moved from Berlin to some other location.

I also think that politics can play a role in choosing a venue for the
Games. The community of nations has every right to encourage
enlightened regimes by favoring them as Olympic hosts, as well as
creating a “carrot and stick” for others by offering them the
opportunity to host if they change their policies. In the case of
China the games were awarded to Beijing in return for a mere promise
to change their policies, which was a terrible and obvious mistake
(more likely a transparent fig leaf) since China had no incentive to
keep their promise. Politicizing the choice of venue is quite
different from politicizing the games themselves.

However, excluding athletes from a particular country, or boycotting
the Games once they have been already awarded to a particular country,
needs a very compelling political justification. I think that invading
a country (the rationale for the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics)
is not enough, since unfortunately countries invade each other all the
time. Supporting repressive regimes is also not a good enough reason;
even the most enlightened countries also resort frequently to propping
out “our SOB” (as FDR reportedly described a banana-republic tyrant
supported by the US government.) The inevitable result of using such
questionable criteria would be a counter-politicization, as occurred
in the 1980 boycott, and in the end the goal of the Games would be

I think choosing China’s record on human rights and international
relations falls short of the standard demanded of an Olympic host, and
that choosing it to host the 2008 Games was a mistake, while demanding
a mere promise to improve human rights was a cynical gesture. However,
since the decision was made I also feel that their violations fall
short of the kind of breaches that would justify a boycott.

In short, I’m happy Israel’s Olympic team is competing in the Beijing
games and I wish them luck.