Ethics@Work: Olympic ethics

Beijing is a poor choice to host the 2008 Games, but not worth a boycott.

olympics chinese flag (photo credit: )
olympics chinese flag
(photo credit: )
The Olympic Games open Friday 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 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 1,000 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 nonparticipant 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 South Africa 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 its policies, which was a terrible and obvious mistake (more likely a transparent fig leaf) since China had no incentive to keep its 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 frustrated. 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 China's 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. Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.