Should we boycott the Beijing Olympics?

► « Sport is universal and democracies are not »

Pascal Boniface, Director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), specialist in the geopolics of sport.

Each head of state and government is free to go somewhere to show his closeness to a country. They may come to the Olympics or a sports competition to nurture a relationship or recognize the importance of the event. Not to go is also a rebuff for the host country.

If Joe Biden still has the will to show his bad humor about Beijing, the diplomatic boycott will be enough to do it and we can expect that there will be no American official at the opening of the Olympic Games. Beijing winter. But why should only athletes pay the price of sanctions against China when they have been training and preparing for these competitions for years?

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We are not asking the cultural or economic community to boycott China. If it had to be done for the Beijing Olympics, why continue to buy and sell in China? There is a kind of facility in certain intellectual or political circles to say: the simplest, the most visible, is to ask for a sports boycott.

In 1980, Jimmy Carter had banned the American Olympic Committee from going to the Moscow Olympics and athletes regretted having to bear the brunt of the quarrel between the two countries. It is possible that one or two American athletes decide not to go to the Beijing Olympics. But I don’t think Joe Biden would go so far as to ban the US Olympic Committee from going there. I think the latter will send a delegation and his athletes will be keen to defend their chances and wear the medals.

In the case of the Chinese tennis player, Peng Shuai, who was an important element in the degradation of the image of Beijing, the Chinese must have been surprised that it is the sportsmen who mobilize. And I think that eventually, they will release her, thus showing that the pressure of the sports movement has paid off. As at the Tokyo Summer Games, where the IOC weighed so that the Belarusian athlete, Kristina Timanovskaya, was not forcibly repatriated to her country after criticizing the regime and its trainer.

We have to admit that sport is universal and that democracies are not. Each time, there are debates as to whether or not it is legitimate to organize sports competitions in non-democratic countries, but who decides that such and such a country can do it? When in 2005, London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, it was two years after the Iraq war during which the United Kingdom’s engagement was not a very great success.

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Some believe that only Western countries can organize these great competitions. However, globalization means that there is a kind of multipolarization of the organization of competitions which are no longer, for the Football World Cup, the exclusivity of South America and Europe, and for the Olympics, that of North America and Europe.

► « A diplomatic boycott would be a strong signal on human rights »

Patrick Clastres, historian and professor at the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences (ISSUL), at the University of Lausanne

These Beijing Winter Games are highly unlikely to be the subject of a full boycott, meaning that countries will ask their athletes not to participate. Today, it is rather diplomatic boycotts that the States choose. This solution makes it possible to take into account the criticisms expressed by athletes, who denounce the fact of being taken hostage. So it is quite possible, at the end of the day, that the United States will send its athletes to Beijing but not political representatives.

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And I do not agree with those who say that this type of boycott is useless. This is the argument of Thomas Bach, the current president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). He said, for example, that the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games by the United States had no result, that it had not led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. But this is a historically false analysis. Because this boycott was not aimed at obtaining this military withdrawal. Indeed, it had been orchestrated two years before the Moscow Games. At the time,Zbigniew Brzeziński,the counselorto the national security of Jimmy Carter, had recommended to him not to take part in these Olympic Games to denounce, to the international community, the violations of human rights in the Soviet Union. Then, the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 provided a ready-made pretext for the American president to announce the non-participation of American athletes.

A boycott of the Olympics does not make it possible to influence the military or economic strategy of the country concerned. It is a weapon of soft power which targets international opinions. And that is exactly what happened in 1980. The whole world was made aware of the problem of human rights in the USSR. This boycott was also a message to local dissidents telling them to stand firm, but also to the Soviet population to incite them to revolt. And this boycott of the Moscow Olympics played a role in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, then of the USSR in 1991.

A boycott of the Beijing Games, even purely diplomatic ones, would not be without effect on China. If many countries, led by the United States, used it, it would send a strong signal to public opinion on the issue of rights and an affront to the Chinese leadership. We see it with the case of tennis player Peng Shuai: even China cannot ignore the reactions of international public opinion which, in the age of social networks, are spreading with unprecedented speed and force.

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In fact, the IOC is setting traps for itself: it fights to prevent boycotts which become almost inevitable from the moment it entrusts the organization of the Games to countries like China or Russia, where the rights human rights are not respected.

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