Yes, there is something deeply disturbing about the summer Olympics being hosted in Beijing, capital of a country whose human rights record is–to say the least–deeply problematic. Because of the immense symbolism surrounding the Olympics, athletes and governments have been called upon to express their opposition, through boycott or other symbolic displays of protest.
In today’s Ynet, Yael Arad–who earned Israel its first-ever olympic medal when she took the silver in judo in 1992 and dedicated her medal to the memory of the Israeli athletes murdered in the 1972 Munich olympics–takes a stand against Olympic boycotts. But not out of any compassion for China:
Human rights is a very important issue, but why is everyone remembering it now? Why didn’t they cry out eight years ago, when the International Olympic Committee decided that the Olympic Games would be held in China? Then it was unchallenged, now they are trying to turn the athletes into hostages.
Heads of states can express their protest, and their protest is important. But athletes cannot be demanded to boycott the Olympic Games. Athletes, although they represent their countries, are first and foremost people with a dream and a life’s work in which they have invested their time and energy from an early age. Taking part in the Olympic Games is the peak of realization as far as they are concerned.
It’s improper to ask them to give up everything and rob them of their dream, while the human rights issue in China has been a known fact for years. None of us has stopped purchasing products made in China in protest in our private lives, or stopped doing business in China in the name of human rights.
When Jimmy Carter decided that the US would boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow, it was the last ineffectual step in a long line of inconsequential acts against a vast empire with a human rights record as bad as China’s. All it did was to call into question the merit of the medals awarded there, and at the Los Angeles olympics four years later, which Moscow boycotted in return.
But when the U.S. participated in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, it was an opportunity to showcase the benefits of freedom, to embarrass the racist reich with the prowess of Jesse Owens. Perhaps this did little to stop the Nazi juggernaut. But at least it engaged in symbolic debate on the playing field, without snuffing out young athletes’ dreams.