In a more decent world, China would not be allowed to host the Olympics.
This is partly to say that the brutality of the Chinese government is incompatible with the ideal that the Olympics are thought to represent. But it is also to say that no country has a right to the Games. When the IOC chooses a host, it deprives the losers of nothing to which they are entitled. To award is thus to praise. It is to praise the host city’s economic conditions, its tourism infrastructure, the excellence of its swimming pools. But it is not merely to praise in this way, because the Olympics do represent an ideal — of individual achievement, and, by extension, of liberty. To award them is therefore also to praise the host for embodying that ideal. This would be true even if the IOC did not wish its decisions to carry that implication: for it would know all the same that its decisions are so taken. Here we begin to understand why a normally constituted person recoils at the thought of its giving the Games to Pyongyang.
Many normally constituted persons did notrecoil when the IOC gave the Olympics to Beijing, and their feeling was not wholly detached from reality: The Chinese government is not, after all, Kim Jong Il. But the lesser evil is evil still, and there is nothing hyperbolic in the use of that word to describe the Chinese Communist Party. The bill of indictment against it is familiar, though one should remember that it comprises much more than the bloodletting, fifty years of it, in Tibet. There is also the persecution of Christians and other religious groups, the laogai system (a Chinese Gulag), the suppression of free speech (grown worse under Hu Jintao). To put the matter schematically, there is the Chinese government’s belief that it may obliterate anybody who opposes its policies.
No one of consequence is calling for an all-out boycott of the Beijing Games. The Dalai Lama himself does not favor this, though he offers no reason for his view. Probably he knows a total boycott would be unpopular. It would “hurt athletes” (true, if hurt here means revoke an opportunity for professional attainment) “without doing much good” (perhaps true if good is defined in terms of outcomes). Meanwhile the tanks roll across Lhasa, and we ask ourselves whether, against that grim backdrop, it is frivolous, or cowardly, or worse, to applaud athletes for running fast.
Each will have his answer to that question. But the answer should depend at least in part on whether it is possible, while still competing in the Games, to deplore the Chinese government’s wickedness.
And that is the force of the argument for boycotting the opening ceremonies. If diplomats and athletes were to walk out, or simply not to attend, this would serve as a denunciation of the Chinese government’s latest outrages in Tibet. It would implicitly revoke the praise that the IOC has bestowed upon that government. It would be a way of saying: “We will compete here, for we did not choose to compete here. But we are not happy about it. And we want the world to know that, in our opinion, this government is not worthy.” Yes, that is symbolism. But then the implied praise that this symbol is meant to cancel out has itself been conferred symbolically.