Canada was among the nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)
The Big, Bad "B" Word
Trouble brewing for the Beijing Olympics
By Scott Russell, CBC Sports Weekend
Mon., March 31, 2008
It is, after all, only a word. Boycott. A thought. A threat. A warning. But in the vocabulary of the Olympics, boycott means something extraordinarily ominous.
It means hope and dreams are on the line.
We're starting to hear the "B" word with alarming frequency as the Beijing Olympics approach.
"It is such an ugly word in my books," says Elfi Schlegel. Schlegel is a gymnastics commentator for NBC Sports and was, at the time of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Canada's top-rated gymnast. A Commonwealth Games champion and ranked in the world's upper echelon, she had the carpet pulled out from under her talented 16-year-old feet when Canada boycotted those 1980 Olympics. The athletes were kept home because the Soviet army was in Afghanistan. It had nothing to do with her.
"I am still bitter and it doesn't matter how many years have gone by," Schlegel reflects. "Every time I cover an Olympics I look out into the arena and I think what might have been. I was at the top of my game, maybe there would have been a medal and it hurts - frankly it does. I enjoy what I do today but God I wish I had that chance to prove it to the world and prove it to myself."
As the Chinese offences in Tibet become increasingly publicized, talk of boycotting something at the Olympic Games is gathering momentum.
Canadian gymnast Elfi Schlegel performs on the balance beam during the 1979 Pan American Games. (Larry Rubenstein/Canadian Press)
Most recently, a series of European leaders have suggested that they may not appear at the Opening Ceremony in Beijing, thus sending a message to the Chinese government that they do not approve of its behaviour. It is an empty attempt to bring a bully to heel with a token slap on the wrist.
What's worse, it fuels a further bastardization of the Olympic Games and what they are meant to accomplish. Instead of being a tool to craft the betterment of mankind, the Olympics become a weapon to punish someone and inevitably, innocent victims pay the price.
"There's been no benefit to any previous boycott," says Richard Pound. Pound is the former head of the World Anti Doping Agency and a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee. Speaking from Montreal, the one-time Olympic swimmer lashed out at what he sees as a misguided use of the Games in order to exercise minimal political clout.
'No good whatsoever'
"It never affects the target country and all it does mean, if we are confining our discussion to the example of Canada, is that we eviscerate our athletes for absolutely no reason whatsoever and no good whatsoever."
To be sure, the athletes are starting to hear the rumblings and they know that with the Games still a few months off, the threat of a boycott is likely to come to a boil rather than fizzle out. These days it's always in the back of their minds - a clear and present threat.
"I know it sounds so jaded, but I'm trying not to pay attention," says Kyle Shewfelt, the gymnastics gold medallist from the 2004 Games in Athens. Between tumbling lines in Oakville, where he's trying to recover from a serious injury and get back to competitive form, he pauses to distill what a personal affront the concept of a boycott is to all aspiring Olympians.
Athletes like gymnast Kyle Shewfelt put their lives on hold to train for the Olympics, a competition that comes once every four years. (Getty Images)
"I've been working 20 years of my life for this goal," Shewfelt says. "I've put a lot of things on hold. I haven't gone to school and my personal life is on hold. I spend 10 hours a day committed to my goal every single day. So I'm going to suffer if there is a boycott, as will all of my fellow Olympians. I don't think it's the right way to go."
The thing is, talk of a boycott comes not from the people most affected, the athletes themselves, but from political leaders who are masters at the art of diplomacy by convenience.
There are problems with the way the Chinese government goes about its business and deals with its population. Of that there can be no argument whatsoever.
What is offensive, however, is the cowardly way in which those who oppose China's politics employ the Olympics to exact some sort of symbolic leverage. In fact, they are using the Olympics as a whipping boy for the sins of China. Sins which the awarding of the Games to that country brought to light in the first place.
"China will never be the same after the Olympics," Pound points out. "I think we should take the opportunity to do what we can at this level rather than turn China back into a closed society resentful of the rest of the world and very resentful at what would have caused that to happen."
The Olympics are literally history on the run. They are not a cure all for the ills of the world but they can aid in the healing process and provide some light at the end of the tunnel or at the very least, a respite from the storm.
Policemen detain a protester as he holds a banner at the beginning of the flame-lighting ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics on March 24. Protests by press freedom and pro-Tibet groups disrupted the flame lighting ceremony, which was held in Athens, Greece. (Petros Giannakouris/Associated Press)
Give the Games a chance and they will provide a measure of hope that endures for all time. The examples of this reality are many and have become shining demonstrations of what the human spirit is capable of under the magnifying glass of global strife.
Germany hosted the Olympics on the cusp of World War II and the folly of Hitler's totalitarianism was exposed by peace loving athletes who competed beyond the confines of political consideration. Japan staged the Olympics less than two decades after military devastation and re-emerged on the world stage. Korea in 1988 had problems but the exploits of the athletes and the success of the Olympic movement ensured that a previously closed society was ready to welcome the scrutiny of the rest of the world.
An opportunity for change
Things take time. China will not change overnight. It will, however, continue to evolve under the Olympic microscope. We may even be surprised at what a glimpse into the world's oldest culture can offer the rest of us.
To boycott this glorious opportunity would be folly. To hold the athletes hostage in this regard is terrorism by another name. Leave it to an athlete who has been injured by the bite of a boycott to find the right words.
"Boycotts are not effective, they are wrong," says Schlegel. "It's the wrong time and the wrong platform to try and bring any political rest to the world. And don't do it to the athletes because they are the wrong group of people to hurt. They are the group who will have to walk away having so many dreams ripped from them."
It is just a word. Boycott. Nevertheless it is a misguided and destructive weapon when applied to the Olympics. Boycotts are bad because they threaten to rob us all of something that is good.
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Scott Russell brings vast experience, passion and knowledge
to his role as host of CBC Sports Weekend and MLS ON CBC.
A 20-year CBC Sports veteran, Russell hosted the FIFA Women's World Cup
and FIFA U-20 World Cups this past year and has covered multiple Olympic
Games and Stanley Cups over his career with the network.
The 2005 Gemini Award winner is also an accomplished author. He wrote Ice Time: A Canadian Hockey Journey and co-authored The Rink - Stories from Hockey's Home Towns, with fellow sports commentator Chris Cuthbert. Another book, Open House: Canada and the Magic of Curling, a grassroots look at one of this country's favourite sports, hit bookstores in October 2003.
His column, Pride and Performance: Canada's Journey in Sport, appears weekly on CBCSports.ca.