POSTED: March 6th 2014

JOHN GOODBODY: Boycotts should not be for political reasons but ethical ones

The closing ceremony of Sochi - how will the Paralympics opening be tomorrow? / SFC
The closing ceremony of Sochi - how will the Paralympics opening be tomorrow? / SFC

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications 

(SFC) The tumultuous events in Ukraine are already affecting the Winter Paralympics, which are due to start in Sochi on March 7, with the torch currently being carried round Russia. In Britain not only are no Ministers attending the Games but neither is Prince Edward, who as President of the British Paralympic Association has been to every Paralympics since 2003. No official from the U.S. Administration will also be going.

This stance is for security reasons rather than necessarily to express any disapproval at the actions of Russia. Should the situation escalate militarily, there are bound to be calls for a boycott of the nine-day long Games with a total of 45 countries having entered teams. Of course, any boycott would have a far lesser international impact than on the Winter Olympics and with some teams already in Russia, any concerted attempt would be too late. However, in 1976, 22 Black African nations as well as the Caribbean country of Guyana did pull out of those Summer Games when the teams had already arrived in Montreal.

This is highly unlikely to occur this time but it does raise the question as to when, if ever, a boycott is justified. Many people believe that boycotts only hurt the competitors themselves and are never justified.  The two most prominent examples are in 1980 and 1984, when the ‘Cold War’ was at its frostiest. In the first, the United States and many of its political allies, such as Japan and West Germany, refused to attend the Summer Games in Moscow because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan the previous December. Jimmy Carter, the U.S. President, was clearly seeking to make capital out of a boycott to help him in his campaign for re-election. He argued that the Games, a celebration of peace and humanity, should not be held in a country, which was then engaged in an aggressive violation of another country.  

 Four years later, in a tit-for-tat move, many communist countries pulled out of the Los Angeles Games, citing security fears. Nothing was achieved by either of these boycotts, except to deprive athletes of the opportunity to take part. Some never had the chance again. Both were also clearly political.

What is clearly more difficult to determine is one’s attitude to a country, where basic human rights are ignored. For instance, should nations have boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, although it was known at the time that the Jews were not allowed to be members of sports clubs? A tenet of the Olympic Charter is that there should be no discrimination –and yet this was what was happening in Germany to Jews.

There were calls from Jewish groups for nations not to attend the Games and, in the United States, a boycott was only narrowly defeated. For those people, who believe that the best answer in these circumstances, is to go to the Games and then to try to change the views of the host country, those Olympics scarcely support that argument. Within three years, the world was at war and the Holocaust was to take place.

If there had been a boycott of those 1936 Olympics, would the Nazis have taken any notice? Almost certainly not. But at least those boycotting nations and athletes would have known that they had tried to uphold the ethical values of humanity, enshrined in the Olympic Charter. 

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.

Keywords · Sochi 2014 · John Goodbody · Paralympics

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