Send the athletes, keep the politicians home

With just 122 days left before the Beijing Olympics, calls for a boycott should be resisted.

beijing olympics 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
beijing olympics 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
People throughout the free world concerned about Tibet, Darfur, human rights, as well as Chinese foot-dragging on the issue of a nuclear-armed Iran are campaigning to boycott this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Among Israelis, calls to shun the competition continue to gain momentum. The Hebrew Writers Association - itself a frequent target of Arab boycotts - has appealed against an Israeli presence in Beijing. Petitions, op-eds and protests abound. China's human rights record is admittedly among the most abysmal. Just last week Amnesty International highlighted China's crackdown on lands-rights activists jailed for their protests against wholesale evictions to make room for Olympic facilities and to facelift Beijing. Detentions-without-trial, repression of civil liberties campaigners and Internet censorship in China have, if anything, intensified in the Olympics' advent. All this, moreover, is overshadowed by the ongoing violent suppression of demonstrations in Tibet and the attendant media blackout. China's blatant transgressions were no secret before Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 games, but that die was cast years ago and is now a fait accompli. This, perhaps, is why no Western government has called for an outright ban on the games, regardless of European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering's recommendation that a boycott be considered. THAT BEING the case, Israel would be wise to follow the lead of the EU and of the Bush administration by rejecting boycott calls. Indeed, we are the last country which should champion boycotts. Israeli athletes still are victims of relentless, brazen Arab and Muslim blacklisting. Although the reasons in Israel's case are vastly different from those proffered against China, this nation - whose soccer and basketball teams must play in Europe and were once exiled to Oceana - should as a matter of principle strenuously oppose all politicization of sport. This isn't to say that sport in general and the Olympics in particular were ever unadulterated by politics. The philosophical idealism that presents sport as isolated from geopolitical realities has always been baseless. Governments have always heavily influenced their countries' Olympic committees, even in democracies. Recall the American administration's pressure in favor of boycotting 1980's Moscow Olympics - a move regarded in retrospect as counterproductive, particularly because only a few nations (Israel included) bowed to Washington's demands and many athletes (British especially) participated outside national auspices. Of course, the Jewish state has a special empathy for those whose human rights are abused. Visions of the 1936 Berlin Olympics - festooned in Nazi banners and geared to celebrate the Teutonic superman, while Jews were already persecuted under the infamous Nuremberg Laws - still sear our memories. Yet from today's Berlin comes a formula which Israel would be well advised to adopt. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced she will not attend the Olympics opening ceremony. If enough other free world leaders follow suit, that in itself will send a message to China's upper echelons. Staying away from Beijing would be just the sort of moderate censure to which Israeli elected officials should enlist. Granted, Beijing is an enticing destination for a political junket and President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik are already reported to be lining up as participants in the very ceremonial events which Merkel and other Europeans aim to expressly forgo. The most appropriate way to communicate Jerusalem's displeasure with Beijing's repressions, as well as China's generally unhelpful stance toward Iranian nuclear proliferation, short of the ineffectual boycott, is for all those not directly involved in actual competition and training to stay away. Let the athletes compete and let our politicians stay home and attend to the business of the people. The teams will certainly not miss their political escorts, our consciences would be at least partially assuaged and the public coffers will be somewhat less depleted.