After months of media speculation about whether President Bush would skip the splashy opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics to signal his dissatisfaction over China's human rights, the White House announced earlier this month that the President would indeed attend China's coming-out party on August 8. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda quickly followed suit, as did most European leaders including Nicolas Sarkozy (current holder of the rotating European Union presidency) despite months of pleas from activists that he stay away to protest China's crackdown in Tibet, and its close ties with the regimes of Sudan and Zimbabwe.
That's certainly a far cry from the early 1980s, when the Cold War was at its peak and Olympics boycotts were for a brief period seen as an opportunity to spoil the other camp's blowout party. This time around, there seems to be little appetite for sticking it to the host country. Sure, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama have both claimed that they would have boycotted the ceremony if they were in the White House, but empty China-bashing has long been a bipartisan staple on the U.S. presidential campaign trail. Leaders in power are more mindful of China's colossal clout in an increaseingly shaky world economy, and therefore of the importance of keeping good relations with its government. That's why only three G-8 leaders British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper will sit out the opening ceremony in Beijing's National Stadium, and all have insisted their decision was based on scheduling rather than politics. (Brown, for example, is obliged to attend the Beijing Games' closing ceremony just 16 days later, when Chinese officials pass the torch to the hosts of the 2012 Games, to be held in London.)
Activist groups pushing for a boycott have found themselves relatively isolated, and most recognized from the outset that a stay-away from the Games was unlikely. The Olympics are viewed today by most governments as an international institution that brings countries together across all differences, allowing them to express their shared humanity in friendly athletic competition; making the Games conditional on the politics of the moment would threaten the future of the Olympics themselves. So, activists looking to press China on its human rights record were forced to be more flexible.
"Campaigns are becoming much more savvy," says Adam Sterling, director of the Sudan Divestment Task Force in Washington, which stopped short of calling for countries to boycott the Olympics. "We are blending carrots and sticks rather than just arguing for people to pull out." U.S. activists last year published full-page advertisements in newspapers branding the Beijing Games the "Genocide Olympics," because China's arms transfers to Khartoum had reinforced the Sudanese government's efforts in the five-year Darfur conflict that has claimed many thousands of lives. Pressure of that type may have shamed Steven Spielberg into resigning as an artistic adviser on the Games' opening and closing ceremonies, but it has not prompted any revival of the idea of Olympic boycotts as a political weapon.
The use of that tactic began more than half a century ago, when the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain kept their athletes away from the 1956 Games in Melbourne to protest the Soviet Union's crushing of that year's Hungarian democracy uprising. A separate boycott saw Cambodia, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon stay home in protest against that year's Suez Canal crisis. Neither conflict had anything to do with the host nation. And since few of the boycotters were likely medal contenders, the action had very little impact on the Games themselves.
Still, boycotts continued over the next three decades. In 1976, more than 20 African countries refused to send teams to the Montreal Games in protest against New Zealand sending its rugby team to play in apartheid South Africa, at the time subject to an international sports boycott. In 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter tried to have the Olympics moved from Moscow to Athens, and then, when that failed, kept U.S. athletes home. The Soviets retaliated in 1984, when they and their Eastern European satellite states boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. At the last Olympiad of the Cold War, only North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia stayed away from Seoul in 1988. The four subsequent Olympiads were boycott-free, which made calls for a stay-away from Beijing a long shot, at best.
Human-rights groups, in fact, say they long ago concluded that they were better off using the Olympics' massive media blitz to highlight China's repressive laws. Some also believed that Beijing's strong desire to present a modern, open image during the Olympics would force changes inside the country. "We definitely hoped that China would be motivated to make some substantive improvements," says Corinna-Barbara Francis, China researcher in London for Amnesty International, which refrained from supporting a boycott. But those hopes have been dashed as China has recently cracked down hard against human-rights activists, for fear that demonstrations could mar the Games, says Francis. Among those jailed is Yang Chunlin, who was sentenced to five years last February after organizing thousands of people to sign a petition entitled: "We want human rights, not the Olympics." For now, that call has gone unheeded.