Opinion: A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics would put athletes in danger

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A logo outside the headquarters of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Beijing on November 10.Thomas Peter/Reuters

Eric Morse is a retired Canadian diplomat, and an active member of the Royal Canadian Military Institute. He was involved in the 1980 Moscow boycott campaign with the Canadian State Department.

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In 1980, it cornered a US president to spark an Olympic boycott. This time the missing female tennis star could be enough To trigger another. But Moscow 1980 and Beijing 2022 are very different animals, and the idea now of a “diplomatic boycott” – letting athletes go but barring any government presence – is clearly wacky on the one hand, and, on the other, very dangerous. . , That is, dangerous for athletes.

Compared to the 1980 boycott, the issue has come to the fore of late – the Games begin on February 4 – and was triggered by the suspicious disappearance for a few weeks of Peng Shuai, a Chinese female tennis star who made sexual allegations. Were. Attack on the Former Deputy Prime Minister of China Oddly enough, tennis isn’t even a Winter Olympic sport.

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There’s more to it, of course. There have been repeated calls for a boycott of the Olympics over the past few years over the degrading Chinese treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang. But before 1980 there were similar scattered calls for the boycott of Moscow. A catalyst is needed. In 1980, it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

This time, the catalyst may be Ms. Peng. The Women’s Tennis Federation has shown an unexpectedly short fuse and a lot of courage by threatening to pull out of China over the incident. It has certainly raised attention to the level of the White House. (Ms. Peng has reappeared on mixed Chinese media in Beijing and had a video call with a senior IOC official, under all circumstances that are particularly suspicious and that women’s tennis, for one, is not buying it. .)

Until last week, US President Joe Biden had not backed down on any idea of ​​boycotting Beijing. That changed during the North American leaders’ summit in Washington, when Mr Biden said the US was considering a boycott, but one that would still let athletes compete. It is still unclear what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks about this.

The boycott of Moscow 1980 took longer to gather steam. The Soviet Union went into Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979. It called for an immediate boycott from NATO’s defense chiefs, but did not gain real traction for a couple of weeks. But US President Jimmy Carter was already in a domestic bind over the Iranian crisis, and by January 14, he and Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark had called for a boycott (formally announced by Mr. Carter on March 20). ) and began cutting commercial ties with it. USSR.

Of course, this did not stop the Russians in Afghanistan. Exclusion is a symbolic sign and one should not think otherwise. But 80 per cent of diplomacy is symbolic (the rest largely heavy weapons and cold hard cash). The problem is that if you are going to engage in this kind of symbiosis you must better consider the side effects and be prepared to deal with them.

What is the difference between 1980 and now? The word “hostage” was not even in the environment of international relations. Mr Carter was indeed facing a hostage crisis in Tehran at the time, but this was unrelated except that it increased domestic pressure to show strength elsewhere.

When Mr Carter cut Aeroflot flights to Moscow, we took in a few casual ones, but some plain and fancy string-pulling by mid-level executives in Ottawa drove cultural and sporting groups through Montreal . No Westerners in the Soviet Union were ever upset. The Soviets were ranked enough to boycott in 1984, but hostage-taking was certainly off limits.

Forty years later, taking a mortgage is pretty much a factor. China is acting more aggressively whenever it feels there is a threat to its face and has shown that it will do nothing to retaliate against real or imagined conflicts. China has detained two Michaels, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, following the Canadian detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

IOC member in Canada, Dick Pound, who has also gone through the events of 1980, has said that the current situation could very easily spiral out of control. Whatever it is, he understands.

Half a stimulus is still a stimulus. Think of our youth in the place of two Michaels and ask if the risk for them is worth it. When observers are increasingly beginning to wonder whether travel to China is safe, we should not risk throwing Canadian athletes into the mouth of a wolf warrior. There really should be a boycott, but if Canada is to go down that path, it should be all or nothing.

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