World leaders wishing to deliver a snub to China over its crackdown in Tibet will hurt only their own athletes if they use the Beijing Games to make their point, according to Olympic officials here.
US President George W Bush and other leaders have come under pressure from activists to boycott at least the opening ceremony of the August extravaganza to protest at issues including Tibet and China's human rights record.<b1>
China has built up the Olympics as a prestige "coming-out" party onto the world stage and would likely take a dim view of any leader who said they were not going to attend because of political differences.
But major world figures have not, as a rule, attended every Olympics -- in the 2004 Games in Athens, British Prime Minister Tony Blair was one of the few at the opening ceremony, to which Bush sent his father.
Moreover, International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials and the Beijing Olympic organising committee point out, it is not the host country that sends out the invitations.
Invitations to heads of state or government to attend come from their own National Olympic Committees.
So while a possible decision by French President Nicolas Sarkozy or others to skip the opening ceremony may disappoint China, it would effectively be a snub of athletes from their own country, Olympic officials said.
"This is how it has worked in the past and this is how it will work at the Beijing Games," said Zhu Jing, a media and communications department official at the Beijing organising committee.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UN chief Ban Ki-moon are among those who have said they will not be present when China opens the Games on August 8.
However, they have insisted those plans were in place before the unrest in Tibet, with Sarkozy the only one linking attendance to whether Beijing opens dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
IOC President Jacques Rogge said an opening ceremony boycott would perhaps hurt athletes, but nobody else.
"There are some politicians who talk of a boycott not of the Olympic Games, but of the opening ceremony," said Rogge, who was here last week for a series of meetings.
"I think the athletes would be disappointed because the athletes of a particular nation would not have their political leaders applauding them," he added.
The parade of nations at the opening ceremony sees every competing country march into the main Olympic stadium behind their national flag.
Rogge said political leaders were free to make up their own minds and that whether or not they attended the opening ceremony would not affect the Games.
"Even if they did that would not harm the quality and the success of the Games because the Games are about the athletes," he said.
Rogge insists all 10,500 athletes will compete at the Games after the 205 national committees unanimously rejected any boycott and
condemned political meddling in sports during a three-day session in Beijing last week.
Henri Serandour, head of the French Olympic committee, summed up the mood when he said that even if Sarkozy demanded a boycott, the national team would still take part in Beijing.
Many Olympic officials are adopting a "wait-and-see" attitude on whether a boycott will materialise, and believe public opinion is on their side.
"I am saying adamantly that public opinion around the world does not want a boycott," Rogge said.
"They are against a boycott because they know that the only victims are the athletes themselves, who are innocent."
In Beijing, Rogge chaired an executive meeting of the IOC and declared the Olympics in "crisis" after protests badly disrupted the torch relay in Europe and the United States.
The scenes of chaos were a public relations disaster for the Olympics, with activists using the opportunity to vent their anger.