As the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing approach the starting gate – and as global criticism escalates over China’s treatment of its citizens and minority ethnic groups – Western News sought insights from two scholars who have spent decades researching the culture and values of elite sports.
Bob Barney is a professor emeritus in kinesiology and the founder and former director of the Western-based International Centre of Olympic Studies. MacIntosh Ross is a kinesiology professor who studies the sociopolitical context of athletics.
As colleagues, and friends, they’ve come to different conclusions about the intersection of human rights and the biggest winter sports spectacle in the world.
One multi-sport event. Two diametrically opposed perspectives about the ethics of Canadians’ participation. Western News brings these two views to the forefront as the 2022 Winter Olympics gets underway.
Are sports boycotts ever effective? (Barney 👎, Ross: 👍)
Bob Barney: Absolutely not. The Olympics have grown to command so much global attention that they have “become an unparalleled target as a forum to register one’s point of view on social and political issues of concern.” But boycotts, ether threatened or having taken place by different nations, occurred in 1936, 1956, 1968, 1976, 1980 and 1984 with one unequivocal result: “They don’t work! Olympic Games have never been useful in bringing about change in circumstances for which the boycott attempt was aimed, including the IOC’s enunciation that their exclusionary efforts helped to eradicate apartheid in South Africa. The lessons of history in this regard tell us that socially-, politically-, or emotionally- charged Olympic boycotts do not succeed in bringing about hoped-for results, no matter how altruistic the cause might seem to be.”
MacIntosh Ross: Sometimes. “Boycotts on their own aren’t a solution but as a broader package of measures, they can exert a lot of pressure.” They draw global attention to injustices and deprive host nations of the praise they seek. Boycotts of many international competitions in South Africa and South African teams because of that county’s institutionalized racism and segregation “did have an impact on pressuring them to dismantle apartheid.”
And while Canada has decided its politicians will boycott the Games, that alone doesn’t make host countries pay attention: “All it does is deplete the guest list for a few parties.”
Should sports get involved in global politics? (Ross:👍, Barney: 👎)
Ross: “I just don’t think you can separate the politics from the sports. There might have been a point in time when that argument carried weight, but once the IOC became an observer in the United Nations, they entered that political realm.” And while the UN celebrates the Olympic truce and values, “it doesn’t pressure the IOC to adhere to those values, not even when they hold Olympic Games in authoritarian countries that are antithetical to the values of the Games.
“I think at some point, there has to be value placed on doing the right thing.”
Barney: Olympic values and virtues of fair play, peace and tolerance transcend the political sphere. “Some people get all over the IOC as a business and a political entity and paint them as crooks or imbeciles. That’s not a fair characterization. Their primary existence is to decide who is going to host the Games and then to see that the events take the high road; that they protect the value codes of the Olympic movement: excellence, friendship and respect. From the start of its history the Olympic Movement has avoided at some cost entering into the fray surrounding specific politicized issues, of which human rights, as noble as it might seem, is an example. By staying aloof from politically-charged issues the IOC attempts to insure that its fundamental value codes remain secure, thus retaining its wholesome image, which, in itself, is one of its two most important and saleable assets, the other being exposure.”
Should athletics supersede a host country’s human-rights record? (Barney:👍, Ross:👎 )
Barney: “If diplomats and politicians don’t want to go, fair enough. But I don’t see the virtue in the Games and the athletes being sacrificial lambs. In the end, the only ones who are penalized by a boycott are the athletes.”
Ross: Athletes are unfortunately caught in the middle of a dispute they had no hand in creating. But the Games are already at least as much an entertainment, advertising, political and nationalistic symbol as they are an athletic showcase. At the same time, China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities and its suppression of dissent “should be considered an industrial-scale, massive human rights catastrophe.
“And yet, all of this is not important enough to enter into the realm of sport? Somehow, by raising these abuses publicly and suggesting maybe an athletic competition is less important than taking a stand, we’re seen as killjoys. Does participation in the Olympics really trump a response to the absolute eradication of cultures in the host countries where Olympics take place?”
So what should come next?
Ross: “I hope this is a step towards a complete overhaul of the Olympics, or maybe it starts getting people to talk about different ways to hold the Olympics – a situation where the IOC has to look itself in the mirror and ask, ‘Should we really be awarding these Games to authoritarian regimes?’”
Athletes competing in China, meanwhile, have, wisely, been told they absolutely must not protest or criticize the host country: “It’s just not safe to do so.”
Barney: The Olympic movement has to stand firmly embedded in its noble roots. “I might be an Olympic romanticist but I look at it through the values that are embedded in the movement. The father of the Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, sold his idea on the basis of the Olympics being a value-laden instrument towards bringing the world’s youth together for the understanding and respect of differences, tolerance, advancement of peace, fair play in sport and other altruistic qualities. A noble mission, one that persisted for decades and, in fact, still persists to this day.”