Boycott the Olympics? How about sending a new team of athletes instead?

The team of Olympic Athletes for Human Rights would make clear that the global community celebrates sport, but it is not willing to ignore human rights on one of the world’s biggest stages, writes Michael Luba.

We could call it the team of Olympic Athletes for Human Rights

Members of the Refugee Olympic Team parade during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. According to Michael Luba, countries could create a new Olympic team, composed of athletes dedicated to the fight for human rights. (Odd Adnersen/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Michael Luba, a criminal lawyer in Ottawa. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The question of whether to boycott Beijing 2022 — and if so, how — has hung over the Games for years, with calls for action growing louder in recent months and weeks. The crescendo appeared to reach a climax when several countries, the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada, announced that they would pursue a diplomatic boycott this February. 

The diplomatic boycott decision appears to have been an attempt to address competing interests in the polarized boycott debate. 

Boycott proponents and opponents have framed the debate around two issues — support for athletes and support for human rights — and have led us to believe that countries must choose one or the other. This is false. There is another option for those who wish to advocate for human rights without abandoning athletes who have worked for years for this Olympic moment. The solution is simple and has historic precedent. It would put human rights in the spotlight throughout the Games and would beautifully embody the Olympic spirit.

Rather than pursue an all-or-nothing strategy, countries wishing to acknowledge the unique challenge of these Games could refuse to send a national team, but still redirect their budgets and free their athletes to compete as part of a new human rights-themed team. Among many options, they could call it the team of Olympic Athletes for Human Rights. 

It has happened before

This team could even welcome concerned athletes who are displeased with their home countries' plans to compete as usual. In other words, the team would be open to all those who wish to advocate for human rights, but do not want to sacrifice perhaps the biggest moments of their athletic careers. 

While creating such a team may sound impossible, it has happened before. 

In 2018, in the spirit of international cooperation, the Koreas entered a unified hockey team to compete in Pyeongchang. At the same Games, following the suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee for the Russian doping scandal, the International Olympic Committee created a new team called the Olympic Athletes from Russia. That team competed under the Olympic flag, just as the Unified Team had done in 1992, grouping together athletes from new countries who did not yet have organized Olympic committees following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. 

Finally, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 saw the participation of the Refugee Olympic Team, which allowed refugee athletes identified by National Olympic Committees to compete under the Olympic flag. 

The trend in all of these examples is clear. Where there is an identifiable international problem and a global, cooperative desire to address it through the harmonizing power of sport, the international community is capable of endorsing creative solutions. Beijing 2022 should be no different. 

A powerful message

The size of the Olympic Athletes for Human Rights team is impossible to predict, but at any size it would represent the best of the international sport movement. Every medal won would be won not for a country, but rather for human rights. If the team was large enough, human rights would march in the opening and closing ceremonies and would feature in nearly every event. Human rights would almost certainly stand on the podium, and could even end up winning the most medals of any team at the Games. From Feb. 4-20, 2022, all eyes would be on human rights. That would send a powerful message of unity and respect.

This idea withstands all the usual criticism thrown around in the boycott debate. 

Some might say this won't stop the Chinese government's alleged abuses. Who said it had to? It's perfectly acceptable to protest simply to show opposition, whether or not anything changes. 

Others say politics violates the Olympic spirit. How unfortunate. Sport is political, just like everything else, and those who attempt to separate sport from politics are simply asserting a political opinion in favour of the status quo. The status quo in this case: putting prestige and profits ahead of alleged violations of human rights.

The team of Olympic Athletes for Human Rights would make clear that, while the global community celebrates sport, it is also willing to take a stand in defence of human rights on one of the world's biggest stages.

It's an easy win for the Olympic movement and for sport in general. So now, the big question: who is going to make it happen?

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Michael Luba is a criminal lawyer in Ottawa. His opinions are his alone and do not represent his employer.


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