Monday, August 12, 2013

Boycotting the Olympics

I'm not a fan of the Olympics. Watching sports never interests me and without the appeal of sports, you are left with this weird institution with a history of corruption that plays on nationalist symbols under the banner of internationalism.

The basic premise of the Olympics is something like this: while a lot of countries and governments in the world suck, everyone will put aside their differences and compete together in the spirit of world harmony. Truly awful regimes participate in the Olympics,  but they still get to compete because their participation is said to serve the higher good. Countries that really can't stand one another and which otherwise will have nothing to do with one another have nevertheless competed against each other in the Olympics. That's what the Olympics is about.

Which makes the idea of a boycott a bit difficult. If we're letting genocidal regimes compete, what is the line that cannot be crossed? There is some consensus that legally enforced discrimination is grounds for exclusion. That's why South Africa was excluded from the games between 1964 and 1988. But there is a lot of other legally enforced discrimination in the world. A whole lot of countries have laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, sex and ethnicity. You could say that the exclusion rule is limited to racial discrimination, but the line between race and ethnicity is pretty arbitrary. If, for example, Uighurs or Tibetans are classified as a new race as opposed to an ethnic/religious group, then the largest country in the world would not be allowed to participate.

You could also argue that the standard should be different for the host country than for a mere participant. A participating country can suck quite a lot (provided they don't discriminate on the basis of race like South Africa did during the apartheid era), but the host should be better. If you go back before World War Two, there are a bunch of sucky hosts that seem to break this rule (the Olympics that the Nazis hosted in 1936 is the obvious example). But even if we limit ourselves to the post-war period, there's the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

There's another issue lurking in the background of all of this: the so-called "first world" or "developed" countries tend to have better human rights records than the countries of the "third world"/"developing world." Check out the lists of hosts. Until really recently, the hosts have all been European, North American, or the developed East Asian countries (i.e. Japan and South Korea). The IOC understandably wants the list of host countries to reflect the list of participating countries better. Otherwise, the whole endeavor just smacks of imperialism. If the IOC broadens the list of hosts, there are going to be more human rights concerns about the host countries. It will have to overlook those concerns (as it did with China) to advance its larger mission of bringing the world together, including the sucky parts of the world.

Which is why I am really lukewarm about the boycott Sochi effort. From the outset I really don't care that much if the Olympics doesn't happen this year, nor do I care if it proceeds but it turns into a messy series of protests that are embarrassing for the Putin government. Actually, at least that would make the Olympic games interesting to me for once. But if you buy the premise of the Olympics, I'm not sure a boycott is justified. Yes, the Russian government sucks. The new law criminalizing promotion of homosexuality is appalling. But my understanding is the Olympics is about overlooking that stuff so people from all over the world can sweat together. Also, there are a lot of other really appalling things about the Russian government that have been around before this current anti-gay law. Like the murder of journalists.

On the other hand, the anti-gay issue is the one that has caught on. I can't say I'm against trying to embarrass the Putin government over this particular issue, even if there also happen to be other good reasons that are not being given as much attention. Given what the Olympics stands for, it just seems to be a bad fit. I don't really care what the Olympics stand for, so maybe I don't care about that. Like I said, I'm lukewarm. But I suspect that most people who bring this issue up do care about the Olympics. (That's why they are bringing it up).