All-round opposition to Olympic boycott

Rising above the escalating violence in and around Tibet, the message from around the world was loud and clear: “Let the Games begin.”

European nations and Olympic committees said on Monday they opposed a boycott of the Beijing Games over China’s handling of the unrest in Tibet. And everyone else who spoke out, from Russia to Australia, echoed that message.

“Under no circumstance will we support the boycott. We are 100% unanimous,” Patrick Hickey, the head of the European Olympic committees, said in an interview.

European Union sports ministers and Olympic committees, holding talks on Monday, said sports should not be linked to such a political issue and that previous Olympic boycotts had already shown what limited impact they have.

“Not one world leader has come out with the suggestion of a boycott and no less a person than the Dalai Lama” is against it, Hickey said.
“A boycott is only a punishment of the athletes.”

Slovene Sports Minister Milan Zver, who is chairing a meeting of top EU sports officials from the 27 member states and Olympic committees, said it was no different on the government side. “I am against a boycott of the Olympic Games in China,” Zver said.

Christiane Hohmann, a spokesperson for the EU’s executive commission, said “such a boycott would not be the appropriate way” to voice concerns of human rights or rights of those in Tibet.

Russia warned against efforts to turn the Beijing Olympics into a political game. “We would like to underscore that efforts to politicise the holding of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in China are unacceptable,” the government said.

Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said he supported the stand, adding: “I very strongly believe that we should not in any way bring the Olympics or call the Olympics into question.”

The Olympic committees joined the call. “To burden sports with this is the wrong way. It really has to be for the politicians,” said Erica Terpstra, the head of the Dutch Olympic committee.

“There was no call for a boycott whatsoever, even though there is great concern about what happens there,” Terpstra said.

Claudia Bokel, head of the athletes’ commission of the European Olympic Committees, said that standing aside has nothing to do with political disinterest.

“We are very concerned as athletes, but we have been working on the qualification for the Games for a long time. It is our existence,” the Olympic team fencing silver medallist said. “We, as athletes, think we should have the time to do our sport and not get involved as a tool for politics.”

Australian Olympic committee president John Coates endorsed the claim that boycotting would achieve nothing except disadvantaging athletes.

“It is not the role of the IOC to take the lead in addressing such issues as human rights or political matters, which are most appropriately addressed by governments or concerned organisations,” Coates said.

On Monday, Tibet’s governor promised leniency to anti-Chinese protesters who turned themselves in before the end of the day, as troops fanned out to quell sympathy protests that have spread to three neighbouring provinces.

The fiercest protests against Chinese rule in almost two decades have embarrassed China’s communist government and hurt its efforts to have a smooth run-up to the August 8 to 24 Beijing Olympics.

Europe, however, has never questioned the right for the Chinese to stage the games.

Last Friday, a summit of EU leaders criticised China’s response to demonstrations in Tibet but did not go as far as to threaten a boycott on human rights grounds. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana even said he still intended to go to the Games himself.

The national Olympic committees said others should stand up instead of athletes. “Sports should not carry the burden,” said Togay Bayatli, president of the Turkish Olympic committee.

“Our countries are doing business there. Everybody is going there,” Bayatli said, adding it was up to businessmen and politicians to take the initiative.

Economic relations between the 27-nation EU and China are moving closer all the time. Bilateral trade doubled between 2000 and 2005 and reached $370-billion in 2006. Europe is China’s largest export market and China is Europe’s prime source of imports.

Zver has argued that political pressure through sport doesn’t work, saying the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games was largely ineffectual at a political level. At the same time, it badly hurt the Olympic movement. “Sport is a tool of dialogue,” he said.—Sapa-AP

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