In the midst of global economic volatility, the insoluble ravages of war and systematic military crackdowns, we find ourselves faced with one question that seems to beg a clear yes or no answer. Should we—we nations, we corporations, we media, we individuals—boycott the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing?

I think that the Olympics, and the furor over China hosting the Games, provide an ideal frame through which we might start to think through the intersections of the crises we face and the way world politics are played.

Let’s backtrack. Ever since the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Games to Beijing, there have been protests that China’s record of human rights violations, and its policies in Sudan, Tibet, and Taiwan, should preclude the nation from the honor (not to mention economic gains) of hosting the Games.

Actress Mia Farrow has for months been calling for a boycott. In March 2007, Farrow penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling “The Genocide Olympics” an opportunity to pressure China, which purchases the majority of Sudan’s oil exports, to work toward stopping the genocide in Darfur. This February, Steven Spielberg withdrew as adviser to the Games.

More recently, the protests in Tibet have increased pressure on China and the world to respond, as Beijing impugns the Dalai Lama and conflicting reports about the death toll in Tibet raise questions about China’s brutality. On March 24, the Olympic flame-lighting ceremony was disrupted by protestors, in what we can assume is just the first demonstration at an official Olympic ceremony.

Strangely silent in all of this have been the Olympians themselves, who have the opportunity to perform their countries’ support of the Olympic message: “one world, one dream.” Why haven’t we heard their voices, their thoughts on the intersection of politics and sports, their acknowledgement of complicity, or their rejection of the accusation that to participate in the Games is to condone genocide and oppression? Or, perhaps we should ask the question this way: Why haven’t we asked the Olympians about the ethics of an Olympic boycott?

We are used to watching and reading politics played out in secret meetings and op-ed pages, in demonstrations and sound bytes, in individual images and isolated responses. The Beijing Games present us the opportunity to think about the international crises we face as part of a holistic system, to consider the bodies of our athletes as the bodies of the people of Darfur, to consider the Olympic flame as the flames that torch Tibet, to consider the voices of activists and politicians together with the voices of people on the ground and athletes on the fields. Wherever you come down on the question of the boycott, this is an opportunity for all of us to consider how, and to whom, we ask the question.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.

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