Beijing Boycott? Don't Tell Olympic Athletes

China's critics on Tibet, human rights issues call for boycott of summer games.

ByANNE-MARIE DORNING

March 24, 2008 — -- In Athens, Greece today, the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic torch was held, but not before being marred by protesters. While Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee gave a speech, two men carrying black flags ran onto the stadium field. The men, who were detained by police, were reportedly free press advocates from the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders.

With less than five months to go before that torch arrives at the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic Games, the B-word is being bandied about -- B as in boycott, that is.

In particular, several top European Union officials have been clamoring for action ranging from an EU no-show at the opening ceremonies to a full-scale walkout by European athletes.

"There will be a boycott of some sort, what kind of boycott is the question right now. … At a minimum I think the EU should require that no elected official from the 37-member states attend the opening ceremony, but that is the minimum," European Parliament vice president Edward McMillan-Scott said.

Also today, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who attended the ceremony in Greece, told The Associated Press that he is quietly talking with China on Tibet and other human rights issues before the Olympics. .

"The IOC [International Olympic Committee] is engaged in what I call a 'silent diplomacy' with Chinese authorities since day one of the preparations of the games," Rogge said. "We are discussing on a daily basis with Chinese authorities, including discussing these issues, while strictly respecting the sovereignty of China in its affairs."

Talk of an Olympic boycott has escalated after China's recent violent crackdown on demonstrators in Tibet.

The Tibetan government in exile claims that 103 people have died in the recent unrest, but that number could go much higher, Elliot Sperling, an Indiana University professor of Tibetan studies, said.

Sperling has been frantically communicating with people inside Tibet since the widespread demonstrations began March 10, the Tibetan National Day.

"There have been reports of massive deployments of trucks, thousands may have been arrested, there are large numbers of dead, but it's very difficult to sift through the reports," he said. "Clearly there have been casualties."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and nine other members of Congress visited the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, last week. The Tibetan spiritual leader has lived in India since he fled his homeland after an uprising against China in 1959.

The trip had been scheduled long before the current protests, but Pelosi called the timing of the visit "karma" as she stood next to the Dalai Lama and denounced "China's oppression of people in Tibet."

While the recent violence in Tibet has drawn much attention from media and politicians, it is just one of a long list of grievances that humanitarian groups have with China.

An organization known as TEAM Darfur has made it its mission to "educate athletes and the public about the crisis in Darfur."

China supplies weapons to the government in Sudan and buys oil from the country whose government, activists argue, is responsible for the atrocities in Darfur.

Those are the same reasons cited by filmmaker Steven Spielberg when he withdrew from his post as an artistic adviser to the games.

Other celebrities, such as actress Mia Farrow, have started calling this the "genocide Olympics." Although she is not in favor of an athlete boycott, Farrow has said she believes that high-profile political figures should pull a no-show at the games.

"I don't think President Bush should be at the Olympics. He represents the American people," Farrow said.

But the White House has indicated that the president will use his attendance at the Olympics as an opportunity to engage with the Chinese government over a broad range of issues, including Beijing's human rights record.

"President Bush will go to the Olympics and make it a priority to have a meeting where he can speak frankly with the Chinese President Hu [Jintao]," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

McMillan-Scott called the president's position unprincipled.

"I think it's scandalous that the president has caved in to Beijing and I regret it," he said. "Those of us on the center-right look at the U.S. president to apply principles, but I think on China he is leading with a lack of principle."

The decision by the International Olympic Committee to award China the 2008 Olympics has always been controversial.

The IOC turned down China as host of the 2000 games, in large part, because of its history of human rights abuses and brutal suppression of dissent.

As a result, Beijing's 2008 Olympic Committee made an improved human rights record the centerpiece of its bid for the Olympics. In its application, China offered Article 35 of the country's constitution as proof that China was serious.

Article 35 guarantees: "Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration."

Despite recent developments, China is anxious to make a good impression on the world stage.

"This Beijing Olympic Games will be a great event for people all over the world," Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said at a recent news conference.

But he went on to say that "the principle of the Olympics must be upheld, that is, the Olympic Games should not be politicized."

Nikki Dryden, 32, a human rights lawyer and member of TEAM Darfur who also swam for the Canadian Olympic team in 1992 and 1996, is one of many critics who argue that injecting politics onto the playing field is fair game because China has not lived up to its promises.

"It is correct that there is a clause of the Olympic charter that says you are not allowed to promote political propaganda at Olympic venues, but we are upholding another part of the charter, which says the Olympics is supposed to promote peace and human dignity," she said.

For many, the B-word has brought up uncomfortable memories of the 1980s and the Cold War.

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were already strained when Soviet tanks rumbled into Afghanistan in 1978.

Then-President Carter asked the IOC to move the 1980 summer games from Moscow to another venue such as Athens, Greece, but after the IOC rejected the move, the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to boycott the games.

Four years later, the Soviet Union refused to send its athletes to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

That's not going to happen this time, according to United States Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel. In fact, during an interview, Seibel couldn't come up with enough ways to say no.

"No. Absolutely not," he said. "No consideration is being given to a boycott."

He didn't stop there.

"There is no discussion. We would never entertain it," he said. "It's not on the table."

Get the picture?

Still it's pretty clear that various organizations are entertaining some boycott talk.

For 46-year-old Glenn Mills, this whole controversy is like a hideous flashback. Mills was an 18-year-old high school senior in 1980 and an Olympic-caliber swimmer. After 11 years of training six days a week for hours every day, Mills' Olympic dream was within reach, right up until it was snatched away.

"I think obviously we were scared and really confused. … We just didn't really think it was going to happen until it finally did."

Tom Caraccioli has co-written a soon-to-be published book titled "Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games."

Caraccioli profiled 18 athletes, including Mills, affected by the boycott.

"Ultimately the overriding feeling that I took away from it is, the athletes still don't understand why, what the purpose of the boycott was what did it accomplish?"

And if you talk to the athletes who were affected by the boycott 28 years ago, many will tell you the boycott accomplished absolutely nothing.

"I can't believe they would even bring that up again," said Craig Beardsley.

Beardsley was all set to race the 200-meter butterfly in 1980 until his coach broke the news. "At the beginning I was all for supporting our government and I knew I had to make sacrifices and then I began to realize how political it was, how futile it was and it really upset me."

Athletes like Mills and Beardley add that the burden of a boycott falls on the shoulders of the athletes and no one else.

"Too many governing bodies see Olympians as expendable, but those athletes will only have one shot," Mills said. "Everybody has a cause, and those causes are valid but people want the athletes to take a stand. I say if those big powerful movie stars who have made billions of dollars are asking people to boycott the opening ceremonies then I would ask them not to make another movie for four years, these athletes only get one shot every four years…The only things swimmers should be worried about during the games is whether or not their suit is tied on the block."

Mills said it's also ironic that during the Moscow boycott he and others on the U.S. swim team went to China.

"We had a great time and we gave swim clinics to the Chinese kids. I've been fortunate enough to compete on every continent on the planet," Mills said. "Every place we've gone we've made great friends and that's what the Olympics is supposed to be about."

But it's already apparent that an Olympics staged in China is becoming about much more than fun and games.

Late last week, Chinese officials also broke the news that they were considering banning live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. There has been no comment from the IOC as of yet, but, if true, that would wreak havoc on the plans of all major broadcasters, particularly NBC, which had planned to broadcast the "Today Show" from the plaza.

Why aggravate broadcasters so close to the Olympics? In light of the recent protests in Tibet, the Chinese government might be growing concerned that the eye-catching square could become the site for loud demonstrations in August.

McMillan-Scott has requested an emergency meeting of the EU foreign ministers to discuss the situation in Tibet before a regularly scheduled meeting in Slovenia, Friday.

"The Olympics if they take place in Beijing will take place under a cloud," he said.

And that cloud could end up dampening the dreams of many Olympic hopefuls. Despite the controversy surrounding the games, Rogge told the AP today that awarding the games to China was the right move.

"We were not naive. We knew discussions would flare up in the last six months and that has happened. … We cannot deny one-fifth of mankind the advantages of Olympism. … We believe the games will be a catalyst for change and will open a country, which used to be mysterious to much of the world."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events