The idea of Olympic boycott as political protest goes back at least to 1956. Several European countries refused to go to Melbourne because the Soviet Union had crushed the Hungarian uprising, while some Middle East nations stayed away because of a fight over control of the Suez Canal.
All these years later, it's not clear how keeping athletes out of a track meet in Australia was supposed to affect postcolonial politics in Egypt. But by the 1970s and 1980s, boycotts were as much a part of the Olympics as spandex is today. The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics. The Soviets boycotted the Olympics in Los Angeles. African nations boycotted the Montreal Games because New Zealand refused to boycott South African rugby. And rugby's not even an Olympic sport.
Boycott fever lifted with the end of the cold war. The Olympics turned to simpler concerns like doping and bribery. But with China's recent crackdown on dissenters and Tibetan nationalists, the first murmurs were heard of a possible boycott of this summer's Beijing Games.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he could not "close the door" to the possibility that he might skip part of the Beijing Olympics. Hollywood figures Steven Spielberg, Richard Gere and Mia Farrow have invoked the idea of a boycott for reasons ranging from Tibet to Darfur. Meanwhile, protesters are disrupting the winding path of the Olympic torch from Greece to the opening ceremonies.
Perhaps the temptation to declaim on such a grand stage is too much to resist. And because the Olympics have become a sort of debutante ball for nations entering the global élite, governments must ask whether mere attendance confers a stamp of approval on the host. The boycott logic is easy enough to follow.
But boycotts are empty gestures. Governments boycott, athletes suffer, and the only thing that changes is that the credibility of the Olympics as a festival of goodwill suffers another dent. Jesse Owens had the right idea. In 1936 he led the U.S. team at Hitler's Berlin Olympics--a black man in the land of Aryan supremacy. His four gold medals proved that quiet excellence can be a most eloquent statement.