One of the phenomena of the availability of leisure time appears to be an increased engagement in symbolic gestures either in support of or against a litany of activities. We see these locally in such actions as the turning off lights for “Earth Hour,” aimed at raising global warming awareness, the usual gatherings of a few of the community in protest of the Iraq war, the recent campus demonstration against the proposed Civil Rights Initiative constitutional amendment and various human and civil rights protests, to name a few.
Most are fairly innocuous and peaceful feel-good exercises of the right of assembly and free speech for which, other than personal satisfaction, there is little discernible gain or foul. It is unfortunate that some of these movements are either organized or taken over by hooligans, such as the protests against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank or the inanely foolish antics of the Code Pink organization aimed at closing the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Berkeley, Calif. Equally insane in the latter was the support of the wannabe anarchists of Code Pink by the Berkeley City Council.
There is one call for a purely political symbolic gesture which should be given the Barney Fife treatment and summarily nipped in the bud — the ill-advised agitation for boycott of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. The leaders of several nations have indicated their intent either to stay away or at least are considering that option. A number of members of Congress, to include Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Hillary Clinton, are actively urging President Bush to be a no-show — all in objection to the host nation China and its record of human rights abuses particularly against Tibet.
Human rights abuses real or perceived notwithstanding, the Olympic Games are not a venue to be politicized. Simply put, the Games are about individual athletic competition, the athletes having spent the past four years in preparation for that which for most is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The president is exactly right to ignore those who would have him be a party to an absurdly futile gesture. His attendance at the opening ceremonies is a salute not only to our own but also the premier athletes of the participating nations. He has stated his intent to be there, as he well should.
China, warts and all, is not one whit different than when the International Olympic Committee selected Beijing as the site for this particular Olympiad — the time for protest elapsed by default when the nations of the world failed to act. Additionally, it would appear imprudent for national leaders and, particularly, the leader of the most powerful country to commit to a boycott inasmuch as more leverage is gained in face-to-face contact than in burying one’s head in the sand. We do have diplomatic relations with China, and so far as I can determine, the adage “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” has yet to be repealed.
Most people can remember the embarrassment and folly invoked by the President Carter-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in opposition to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The absolute pointlessness of this exercise in failed diplomacy was demonstrated aptly in that the Soviets ignored it, remaining in Afghanistan for another eight years — the sole effect was suffered by our Olympic Athletes in their wasted four years of hope, training and disappointment.
There are those who scoff at the meaning of the games, claiming they have become too commercialized, too nationalized and all too political. Perhaps our media, as well as that of other nations, tend to dwell overlong on medal counts and country standings — but is there really anything wrong with a nation taking pride in its athletes? If victory in Olympic contests is not important, why keep score?
Naysayers, cynics and whiners to the contrary, the quadrennial Olympiad is the competition among the athletes — however, to expect a vacuum in national pride is to ignore human nature. The crux of this issue is self-evident. There are a number of forums for influencing the behavior of China — the Olympic Games are not on the table.
J. Karl Miller of Columbia retired as a colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. He can be reached via e-mail at JKarlUSMC@aol.com.