Sports, Politics, and Morality on the Olympic Stage

05/25/2011 12:30 pm ET
  • Roger I. Abrams Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University; Author

We all await this summer's Beijing Olympic Games with some trepidation. In addition to the normal anxiety about whether our nation's athletes will shine in the international spotlight, the Chinese events offer some unique challenges.

We have known for a while about the air quality - or rather, the lack of air quality - in Beijing. I gasp at the prospect of track and field athletes unable to catch their breath in an atmosphere laden with dirt and grime. China's authoritarian regime does have the advantage of being able to order ordinary folks to stop polluting the air upon severe penalty. The Chinese industrial infrastructure, however, cannot be so easily scrubbed clean. Some athletes have already announced that they will skip the Games in order to keep their health and play another day.

The air quality reports will not be Beijing's premier problem. Apparently, the political sins of their past will haunt their present. China assumed sovereignty over Tibet in 1951 and officially incorporated the region into the People's Republic. The Dalai Lama soon fled into exile. In recent days, we have witnessed Chinese brutality against those who would seek greater autonomy for Tibet. Riots have now spread beyond the Tibetan capital. The connection between Tibet and the Olympics was brought front and center a few days ago when a protester interrupted the Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece during the speech of the chief of the Chinese Olympic Games Committee.

What then should the world do, if anything, about the official behavior of the Chinese government regarding Tibet? President Bush, who apparently can't wait to attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing, has said very little about the Chinese crackdown on Tibetan protestors. His new pal, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has raised the possibility that world leaders may have to register their disgust with Beijing's lack of restraint: "Our Chinese friends must understand the worldwide concern that there is about the question of Tibet."

Boycotting Olympics for political and moral reasons has a long history. The United States and many of its allies boycotted the Moscow Games in 1970 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets and its allies returned the favor for the Los Angeles Games in 1974 based, it said on the "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States." After much discussion, there was no boycott of the morally-repellant Nazi Olympics of 1936, which were made famous by Jesse Owens's splendid performance in the face of abominable Aryan ideology.

What then should the nations of the world do if the Tibetan crisis remains a live issue as the summer approaches? Those countries that find Chinese repression in Tibet unacceptable behavior must certainly say so. The United States, of course, has the distinctive problem of an enormous financial debt to Beijing as a result of the Bush war-and-tax-cut polices. It will likely express its dismay quietly.

I do not think that a boycott is the answer, however. The young men and women who have trained for years to be able to frolic in the Beijing smog should not be denied that opportunity. We should hold our nose (not a bad idea) and go.