Israel does not come immediately to mind when preferred destinations for winter sports are being considered. Even when tourism was unaffected by the current pandemic, the few venues this country has for skiing, snowboarding, speed skating and the like can hardly compete with the winter wonderlands of Europe and North America, and the government has never invested in the infrastructure to develop Olympics class athletes.
Nonetheless, Israel will be sending a small group of competitors to Beijing to take part in four events during the upcoming winter Olympics – alpine skiing, figure skating, short track speed skating and skeleton – and they deserve the full backing and support of the country they are representing. But as has happened in the past, the ugly reality of global politics and international conflict may wind up interfering.
The United States has taken the lead in calling for a “modified boycott” of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics as a statement of protest against what is generally and internationally perceived to be China’s ongoing violations of human rights, in particular the abuse against the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority. The athletes selected for the games will not be forbidden from participating in the competition, but an official cheering section will be staying home. A delegation from the United States, in other words, will not be taking its place in a designated viewing area from where the American flag would have been hoisted, nor will they be there to beam with pride if the Star-Spangled Banner is played during the distribution of medals. Considering that the 2020/2021 Summer Olympics was, for all practical purposes, held behind closed doors, depriving the winter counterpart competitors of on-site moral support seems grossly unfair.
Australia and Britain have thus far joined the US in this rather peculiar demonstration, but I have no doubt that Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, is working the under-the-radar channels to add additional members to this updated version of the rainbow coalition. It won’t be long, I’m sure, before Yair Lapid gets the call to prove that Israel is indeed worthy of the special relationship between the US and Israel that President Biden has more than once made mention of. And while Israel has, for now, indicated that they have every intention of sending a delegation to enhance the confidence of those wearing the blue-and-white, the situation could change over the next month or so.
That China has much to answer for in how its citizens are treated goes without saying, but using an international sporting competition as a means of conveying disapproval is a questionable policy. Olympics boycotts have previously been staged, most notably as an expression of opposition to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics and then in the 1984 Atlanta Summer Olympics by the nations of the Soviet Union as payback for the 1980 boycott. And yet, all that was gained were asterisks that dotted the official Olympics documentation, indicating the nations that did not send participating athletes during the games of those years.
POLITICALLY, NOTHING was accomplished – the Cold War became neither increasingly frozen nor was there any sort of a thaw. The losers, though, were the dozens of talented athletes throughout the world who trained diligently for four or more years in the hopes of earning the right to have a medal draped around their necks, only to be told that they need to make a sacrifice for the good of their countries and forego what for many would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. That their dreams wound up being crushed like a cigarette butt made little difference to the governments that they had hoped to represent.
What President Biden hopes to accomplish with this mini-spectacle is not readily apparent, but surely he’s not under the impression that China is suddenly going to “see the light” and embrace a Western appreciation of human rights and values. Chairman Xi Jinping may have publicly expressed outrage at this slap in the face, but privately he’s undoubtedly snickering at what is certainly nothing short of a bizarre way of showing disapproval. And, truth to be told, he probably couldn’t care less that a few nations will intentionally not send official delegations to the games. It’s the performance of the skiers and the skaters that the world is interested in, not the political shenanigans that take place in the back rooms.
How, then, should Israel react if they are indeed pressed to join the US in this boycott? There are those who argue that Biden and the Democrats are still smarting from being snubbed by Israel during the Trump years, and that this is a relatively harmless way of restoring the fractured relationship. Or is it?
Israel and China have much to offer each other, and the US should not be permitted to stand in the way of a mutually beneficial relationship. In addition to the obvious economic rewards of doing business with China, cultural and academic exchanges promise significant advantages to the people of both countries. Israel’s well-deserved international reputation for innovation and China’s engineering accomplishments most surely complement each other, and as long as there are no hidden agendas or surreptitious hanky-panky, there is no reason why the two countries cannot work and prosper together. Joining the US as a member of the boycotters could very well create a disastrous crisis.
By no means should the Red Dragon’s disregard for human rights go ignored, but a dab of honey, you know, is sometimes far more effective than a squirt of vinegar. Demands and threats will most certainly have no positive results, and toothless boycotts make little sense. We, then, should invite with open, welcoming arms Chinese entrepreneurs, entertainers, scientists and athletes to visit Israel and meet the citizenry on both personal and professional levels. The sharing of knowledge and skill sets will prove invaluable to both parties. And more importantly, the value of democracy and the appreciation of human rights will not go unnoticed.
Any overture by the US to join in the delegation boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics should therefore be politely but firmly declined. There are limits to gratitude and allegiance, and Mr. Biden and his people should be aware of this.
Besides, the small number of athletes whom we are sending should not be without a Hebrew-language rooting section, or be denied the sight of a large flag waving them on to victory. And if our unexpected success in the Summer Olympics provides any sort of a measure, I hope that the organizers of the Beijing Winter Olympics have a first-rate recording of “Hatikva” for the world to hear.
The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions, and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.