For months now, the world's media have reverberated with talk of boycotts aimed at the Beijing Games. It's not a new idea. The Olympic timeline is a vast tangled skein of boycotts, or threats of boycotts. As history professor John Hoberman points out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy: "Trapped by its grandiose goal of embracing the entire 'human family' at whatever cost, the IOC has repeatedly caved in and awarded the Games to police states bent on staging spectacular festivals that serve only to reinforce their own authority."
Indeed, the Olympics movement has been jarred by boycotts from the very beginning.
1922 -- Women's rights
The first modern Games were held at Athens, Greece, in 1896 -- and women athletes were not welcome. By 1900 they could participate in "ladylike" sports like swimming, archery, etc. But track and field, the most distinguished sport in those days, was barred to them. After two decades of battling IOC femiphobia, a feisty French athlete and organizer named Alice Milliat got fed up in 1922 and led a thousand women track & field athletes to Paris and their own Women's Olympics.
By 1928 Milliat forced the IOC to add a few track & field events for women, and the boycott finally ended. But women's bitter struggle with the IOC over this category of sport lasted long past 1934, when the last Women's Olympics was held. The 1500- meter run wasn't added till 1972 -- the hammer throw not till 2000.
1936 -- One country boycotts Naziism
Berlin's Olympics is a subject from which the U.S. still winces. The IOC awarded the '36 Summer Games to Berlin when Germany was still a republic. But by 1936 the Nazis were in power -- so openly displaying their militarism and racism and anti-Semitism that even some IOC members called for a boycott.
In the end, many opted to ignore the menacing signs. The U.S. decided to participate. Almost every other country followed our lead to Berlin -- except the newly elected Republic of Spain. Instead, Spain planned her own People's Olympics for that summer. Six thousand athletes from 22 countries streamed to Barcelona to compete. Unfortunately at the last minute, the People's Olympics was canceled, owing to an outbreak of fighting between the Republican government and rebel fascist forces. It was the beginning of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War; the war ended with a fascist regime in Spain.
After World War II, the focus of controversy shifted to communism. In 1952, at the Helsinki summer games, the Soviet Union participated in the Olympics for the first time. Satellite communist countries of eastern Europe also began participating. Though it was common knowledge that the Communist world was the scene of massive human-rights violations, there were no Western boycotts at first. The prevailing Cold War philosophy was this: it was more dangerous to keep the Soviets isolated than to have them playing sports with (and ultimately trading with) the West.
1956 -- Boycott over communist repression
In that year, the Melbourne Olympics were boycotted by Spain, Switzerland and The Netherlands as a protest over Soviet repression of the anti-communist uprising in Hungary. Ironically Spain was still run by a fascist regime that had partnered with Hitler and committed its own human-rights violations. But few people seemed to have any issue with Spanish participation in the Games -- nor did they think it ironic that fascist Spain would participate in a human-rights boycott.
As a harbinger of another issue to come -- the Middle East -- Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted the Melbourne Games to protest the Israeli invasion of Egypt. Few countries expressed any sympathy with this boycott -- a fact that would come home to roost in another Olympiad.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, controversy turned to racism in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world -- especially treatment of athletes of color.
1968 -- Boycott discussed for Mexico City Games
This boycott was urged by the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) -- a new international civil-rights organization whose membership was mostly black but included white athletes like the U.S.'s Steve Prefontaine. The boycott never happened. Instead, members attended the games and planned the most public kind of protest. Black medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their now-famous gloved fists of "black power." Both men were expelled from the Games for having violated "the Olympic spirit."
1972 and 1976 -- Boycotts over apartheid
Over those four years, African countries threatened to boycott the Mexico City and Montreal summer games over participation by South Africa, Rhodesia and New Zealand (the last country had made a rugby tour to SA). The IOC agreed to ban South Africa and Rhodesia, but refused to ban New Zealand on grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport. As a result, 22 African countries boycotted Montreal because New Zealand was there.
Also in 1976, the Republic of China (Taiwan) withdrew from the Montreal Games over a recognition dispute with the People's Republic of China. Up until then, the PRC had boycotted the Games because of Taiwan's participation. In 1980, with Taiwan absent, the PRC began sending their team to the Games. Finally in 1984, Taiwan returned to the Games under the name "Chinese Taipei."
Paradoxically, during this tumultuous period, there were huge boycottable issues that never got targeted by that level of action. In 1968, the Mexican government's shocking violence on the eve of its own Summer Games went unboycotted. Ten days before the start of competition, in a public square, 300+ protesting students were mowed down by gunfire from Mexican military and law enforcement. The IOC briefly considered canceling the games -- but the show went on, and participating countries obediently sent their teams.
Likewise in Munich 1972, the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists was not preceded by any immediate boycott rumblings, but the warning sent in 1976 now hit home. The terrorists demanded release of 234 Palestinian political prisoners being held in Israel. The Israeli government refused to negotiate, and the hostages were killed. While this massacre was going on, the Games actually continued.
By 1980, the IOC saw no problem with having the Summer Games in Moscow, in spite of ongoing Soviet human-rights violations. However, in that year, the anti-communist variety of boycottism really boiled over.
1980 -- U.S. boycotts Moscow Games
When the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter threatened a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games if the USSR didn't immediately withdraw their troops. When the Soviets refused to comply, the U.S. boycott led a parade of 65 countries out of the Games. It was the biggest boycott in Olympic history, and left only a straggling 81 countries competing. Moscow was holding the bag on a sizable debt, with less than the expected income from tourism.
1984 -- USSR boycotts Los Angeles Games
This was a tit-for-tat reprisal for 1980. Fourteen of the USSR's eastern-bloc allies (except Romania) stayed home with the Soviets, and held their own Friendship Games there. The U.S. had to lobby like mad, convincing its own allies to attend, and succeeded -- the L.A. Games were the most financially successful in Olympic history.
Last but not least -- through the 1990s, there was a return to women's rights issues. Among them, athletes were growing disgusted with the IOC's gender-screening for all Olympic women, a requirement that had started in 1966. Inevitably, after decades of muffled protest, even athletes' lawsuits against the IOC, tensions came to a head.
1999 -- Threatened boycott over gender testing
That year, just one year before the Sydney Summer Games, an international delegation of athletes confronted the IOC. They threatened to not only boycott but also to actually disrupt the procedures of gender screening for all the thousands of women competing in Sydney. The athletes were backed up by several powerful sports federations, including FIFA and IAAF, who no longer supported the screening. Things got so tense that the IOC was concerned that there would be violence if they attempted to enforce testing at Sydney. It was also sinking into the IOC's head that the gender screening had little or no scientific justification.
So the IOC caved in, and suspended testing. They agreed that it would only be done in individual cases where there was a question.
Did these boycotts achieve anything? Today we could say they probably helped a little -- belatedly, and only after many decades and large loss of life of many millions of victims. To name just a few: Nazi Germany is history. So is the USSR and fascist Spain. South Africa has ended apartheid. On a less lethal level, women athletes, and athletes of color, have an improved status in sport.
Yet recently the story repeated itself: calls for boycotts of the Beijing Games, in protest of China's poor human-rights record. President and Mrs. Bush ignored the calls and went to Beijing. After all, you can't boycott a big trading partner who also happens to hold a big share of your public debt.
As I write this, the Games are on, but campaigns for Chinese goods to be boycotted are being rolled out. All the uproar has a horrible feeling of deja vu about it. Professor Hoberman points out, "What separates the Beijing Games from earlier controversies...is the sheer clout of China within the geopolitical system. The Nazi regime of 1936 had nothing comparable to China's global reach today, and the Soviet economy in 1980 was a dead man walking." Will China be the great exception in modern history, and really change?
Some Americans feel that they condone China's abuses by even watching the Beijing Games on TV. Yet our complicity goes deeper than that; it includes sponsorship corporations, advertisers, broadcast media, elected officials, the travel business, etc. etc. Tax dollars go to support our Olympics program. Indeed, the Beijing Olympics touches every American's daily life in some way, whether they watch it on TV or not.
But the biggest paradox is this: out of the deep dreck of inhumanity around the Games, amazing individual athletes always rose to the top and shone in all their humanity. Their talent and achievement could in no way be dragged down by boycottable actions of their home governments. Big stars like Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, Czech marathoner Emil Zatopek, along with the host of medalists whose names most people don't remember. Our own lesbian Martina Navratilova (women's tennis doubles, 2004) and gay male Ondrej Nepela (gold medal in men's figure skating 1972) came out of Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The same can be said about China and today, as China starts to dominate in some sports -- pairs figure skating, for example, with Zhang & Zhang, and Shen & Zhao, whose artistry is hugely popular with skating fans. It is the athletes themselves who ensure that the Olympic movement somehow survives in spite of its own dark side.
Indeed, the LGBT athletes who are in Beijing right now, both out and closeted, can't resist going after the big personal challenge -- even though they know that their competitors might be funded by some government that persecutes gays.
Paradoxically, many democratic countries who protested abuses by the old regimes don't exactly have clean hands of their own. There is France's record in Algeria, Britain's record in Ireland, Australia's record on First Peoples. Last but not least, the United States has its own surging record of human-rights violations, the list of which is too long to mention here. Americans who are outraged over China's record ought to be even more outraged over our own record. If we expect China to change, we had better set an example.