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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

We all feel Tibet's pain, but a Games boycott is not the way to go Boycotts in 1980 and 1984 merely helped the host countries

March 31, 2008

The Gazette
Sunday, March 30, 2008

What is going on in Tibet wrenches the gut - but is a boycott of the
Beijing Olympics really the best response? Boycotts can have perverse
effects, as we learned in 1980 in Moscow and four years later in Los
Angeles. In each case, the evil government that was supposedly being
disgraced by the withdrawals actually seemed to benefit, at least in the
hearts of its own citizens.

I covered the Moscow Games in 1980. When Canada decided to join the
United States, West Germany and other athletic powers in a boycott of
Moscow - to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (how the
world doth turn) - the learned editors of the Globe and Mail decided to
keep their seasoned sportswriters at home. Why bother with a second-rate
track meet?

Instead, they sent a lone reporter, their European correspondent, to
cover conspiracy in the Kremlin, Soviet imperialism, socialist
economics, Russian society and, should competition happen to break out,
the occasional sporting event. In a word, everything. It was an
impossible assignment, and I loved every minute of it.

The athletes were magnificent. In the gym, there was Nadia Comaneci,
star of the Montreal Games in 1976, now in full flowering womanhood,
trying to cope with a new generation of breastless teenagers.

In the ring, Cuba's great Olympic champion Teofilo Stevenson put away
opponents with a punch that landed like a bound copy of the speeches of
Fidel. (But Ali would have taken him.) In the Olympic stadium, two
British athletes, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe, won gold spectacularly
in the 800 and 1,500 metres. Coe's return from defeat and despair became
one of the great Olympic tales.

Those were special achievements, but the central reality of the Games
was the wave of communist victories. Popular victories they were, very
popular. Day after day, event after event, the Russians dominated,
followed by the steroid-pumped East Germans. And the Muscovites loved
it. They cheered and cheered the hometown wins. They jeered and whistled
in bush-league attempts to rattle opponents. They went home happy,
surfeited with medals, on top of the world.

Americans missing? Who cares? We are the champions.

That's what the boycott did in Moscow. It's also the story of Los
Angeles in 1984. The Soviets and East Europeans withdrew to pay the
Americans back for 1980 - and the same thing happened. The U.S. went on
a gold-medal tear while the country raised Reagan-era chauvinism to
truly Olympian heights. The Russians weren't coming? All the better -
more medals for the home team.

Which, sad to say, is almost certainly what would happen in Beijing this
summer if Western nations were to boycott the Games of 2008. Chinese
athletes would triumph disproportionately. The Chinese media would
trumpet their victories, and the world would get some feeling for what
historians mean when they write about "great Han chauvinism."

Would a boycott benefit Tibet? Probably not at all. Indeed, in all
likelihood, China would react furiously to this international loss of
face, making life even more rigorous for the sad, oppressed Tibetans.

All of which is not to advocate just throwing in the towel and letting
China get away with a public-relations coup. A price should be paid for
bad behaviour. Some rain should fall on Beijing's cynical parade.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested a boycott, not of the
Games, but of the propaganda-rich opening ceremonies. Yesterday,
European Union foreign ministers rejected the idea and instead urged
China to begin talks with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader.

Beijing should be pressed to deliver on pledges of open access to
foreign journalists, not just in Beijing but throughout the country -
including such delicate areas as Xinjiang, where Muslim Uighurs are
unhappy beneath the Han boot. Journalists in their thousands; this could
have real consequences.

None of these moves will deliver independence to Tibet. The Chinese are
paranoid on the subject. Tibet is a border territory, and they will not
let it go. But they can do much, much better.

They could remove hobbles on the practice of Buddhism, so central to the
life of every Tibetan.

When I visited Tibet in 1982, things were more relaxed. Portraits of the
Dalai Lama were propped up on shrines, surrounded by offerings of money
and barley. Today, the portraits are back in storage, forbidden by the

China could slow the waves of Han immigrants who are swamping Lhasa and
Tibetanism itself. Beijing should also get back to serious talks with
the Dalai Lama. Firmly non-violent, he no longer advocates independence
but rather a form of autonomy, within China, that would preserve the
Tibetan language, culture and way of life.

All he wants - all the world really wants - is for his people to be
treated decently. Is that really too much to ask?
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