Boycotting the Olympics

The other day I was on the phone with a buddy of mine, so I asked him if he was watching the Olympics. It was a natural enough question; he’s laid up in the hospital which means he’s got plenty of “nothing to do”. His answer surprised me, he was boycotting the Olympic coverage.

So the next day I was on the phone with another friend, this time taking a break from working on the house, when I mentioned our mutial friend’s stance on the Olympic coverage. He replied that his girlfriend was doing the same thing. She wasn’t happy with what China was doing to Tibet, and this was one of her responses.

Call me sheltered, but this was the first time I had heard of boycotting the Olympic coverage, and so I was in a bit of a shock. Even the online community in which I am active had not really talked much about it, which is a surprise because those guys there (myself included) will chew the fat about anything and everything, often to the point of the latin phrase “ad infinitum, ad nauseam”.

As it always seems to do, shock eventually gave way to thinking, and even a bit of anger. Not at my friends, or the girlfriend’s of my friends (I like them all very much, thank you), but at the idea of boycotting the Olympic coverage on television.

Here’s why.

Most of you know that the Olympics started amongst the Greek Polis (city-states) about 2700 years ago. This makes it exactly as old as democracy, as this was the birthplace of both institutions. What most people do not know is that the Polis then were constantly at war with each other. Every year, after the crops were in the fields, but before the harvest (war season) these little city-states would take up their grudges with their neighbors, usually at the point of armed conflict. Not all of the Polis were democracies (Sparta being the most notable exception, was an oligarchy), but ALL of them, including these fledgling democracies, fought each other. They even developed a wonderful type of fighting in order to accomplish this with minimal loss.

(as an aside, Victor Davis Hanson has a wonderful book about this subject, and it’s importance to Western Culture, called “The Western Way of War“. It’s a great read.)

So when the Olympics were first conceived, they did so with the full knowledge that warfare was common amongst the participants, and largely came about because warfare was so common. Today, we think of the Olympic ideal was to have something higher than warfare to celebrate. In greek culture this meant the human body, specifically the male body (the super-models in those day were always male) and what it alone could accomplish. But to get to this higher goal, they needed to stop fighting each other. To accomplish this, runners would be sent for each carrying an olive branch (symboling peace), and at the sight of these runners, the Polis would stop their wars, select their best athletes, and send them off to the games.

But here’s the thing. Even then the Greeks knew that the Olmypic games were themselves a type of battle, albeit a peaceful one. Call it war-light, or war without blood. With rare exception, the events of the early Olympics all stemmed from martial themes, and celebrated martial prowess. Success in the games was equated with success in the battlefield, and vice-versa. Guys who were charging each other, spears held high, just a few weeks before, would now face each other in the Stadium, and go to battle, albeit in a slightly different way. Each Polis would send a delegation of it’s VIPs and they would cheer and support their champions as best they could. Winning an event was often as important as winning an actual battle, and more than one war was settled based on the performance of their champions alone.

But make no mistake, to the ancient Greeks, the Olympic ideal was a martial one, and was conceived as one. To them, the Olympics was not sports rising above warfare, but battle without the blood.

Keeping this in mind, the question becomes, should we boycott the Olympics? Should we send a message to China, about their human-right behavior, by not engaging them? Ignoring for the moment the futility of boycotting something already bought and paid for, the barrenness of the concept that separating one’s self from a higher ideal is beneficial to anyone, and the fact that America’s human-rights record is, right now, no better, I say no. We have some actual conflicts with China, and will continue to do so for some time to come. This is the nature of global politics, especially amongst larger nations. Like the ancient Polis, we will always have some kind of conflict with China, and need to resolve these conflicts in some way.

The Olympics Games is one way to resolve some conflict, and it works as well today as it did some 2700 years ago. Don’t believe me? Look at how hard China is working to put on a good face. Those guys know their country is getting a lot screen time in the rest of the world, and they mean business. Add to that the fact that athletic performance in China is much more important than anywhere else. In other words, defeating the Chinese in the 100 meter dash is just as effective as defeating them in the field of battle, only in the Olympics, as the ancient Greeks discovered, no one dies, and no one looses face.

We have at our disposal a wonderful tool for resolving some conflict with a potential adversary. I say we grab our flags, cheer for our teams, and do our very best to defeat the Chinese without bloodshed, and which allows them to save face.

What have we got to loose?