Sensible, yes; Trendy, no
So, Bhaichung Bhutia won’t carry the Olympic torch to protest China’s ‘repression’ of Tibet. Aamir Khan will carry the torch but he’ll think deeply about the repressed Tibetans as he runs. And the government of India will restrict the route for the Delhi leg of the torch’s progress so that a marathon journey is turned into a 100-metre dash.
But once you get past the knee-jerk responses and the quick sneers, the facts are considerably more complicated. First of all, even if our instinctive reaction is to back a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, we should recognise that the Dalai Lama himself opposes such a move.
Secondly, we need also to consider how we would feel if the shoe was on the other foot. Of course, there is considerable Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule. And yes, there’s little doubt that Beijing has been brutal in putting down protests. But then, there’s a fair amount of Kashmiri resistance to New Delhi’s rule. And Indian security forces have frequently used excessive force in dealing with protestors. How would we feel if, say, British athletes refuse to carry the Commonwealth torch because the Games are being held in New Delhi? They would quote Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports about repression in Kashmir, just as we are now quoting similar reports about Tibet. It’s easy to get self-righteous about other countries’ problems; less easy when the problems are our own.
About the only thing we can be clear about is this: those who say that politics and sport should be kept separate are talking nonsense.
It puzzles me when I see Indian sports officials taking the line that we will participate in the Beijing Olympics because sport has nothing to do with politics.
I would have no problem if they told the truth: we are friends with the Chinese, see no reason to offend them, and have always maintained that Tibet is an integral part of China — so any domestic disturbances are an internal affair for Beijing to handle in its own way.
But the lies about sport being non-political strain credulity. India was one of the prime movers of the boycott that kept South Africa (in the apartheid era) from participating in the Olympics. It was largely because of us that the South Africans became pariahs in the cricket world. We ran a similar campaign to exclude Rhodesia (the country that later became Zimbabwe). And till the mid-1980s, we had no sporting links with Israel.
All of these stands were expressly political. We had nothing against the sportsmen. We believed that if you excluded regimes that followed policies that were morally abhorrent, then the pressure of international boycotts would force their leaders to amend these policies. To a large extent, it worked. In South Africa, it was global isolation that led to the collapse of apartheid.
Nor were we alone in this stand. South Africa was prevented from participating in the 1964 Olympics after India and other non-aligned nations threatened a boycott. The South Africans were only allowed back in 1992, when apartheid was being dismantled. In 1976, nearly all African nations, not content with a ban on South Africa and Rhodesia, boycotted the Olympics because New Zealand was taking part. New Zealand’s crime was that it had allowed its rugby team to tour South Africa. Rugby is not an Olympic sport, but that wasn’t the point. The Africans said that any country which engaged with South Africa would be shunned.
This is not a position peculiar to the non-aligned movement. The 1958 Olympics were boycotted by some European countries because the USSR was taking part. The Europeans were protesting the invasion of Hungary. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared that the US would boycott the Moscow Olympics to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and 80 other countries followed suit. In 1984, the Soviets retaliated by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics.
The Chinese themselves are no slouches when it comes to boycotting the Olympics. In 1976, they threatened to boycott the Montreal Games if Taiwan was allowed to compete as the Republic of China. (The Canadians threw the Taiwanese out.) In 1980, the Chinese joined the boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
But I’m glad that the actions of Tibetan protestors and such principled objectors as Bhaichung Bhutia have focussed attention on the ethics of sports boycotts. As things stand, India has no consistent policy on this issue.
While the Olympics take place only once every four years, we face this problem more often in our sporting ties with Pakistan. Tours are frequently cancelled for political reasons: we backed out in 2000 because we were angry about the Kargil war. And there have been gaps of up to a decade between cricket tours, not because the cricketers are unwilling to go but because the politicians won’t let them.
Even when the Pakistani team is allowed to come, there are always political parties that protest its arrival and dig up pitches to disrupt matches. Though the cricket board offers the usual ‘nothing to do with politics’ line, the protestors easily see through it. For instance, when Uma Bharti was asked why she was opposed to the Pakistani cricket team playing in India in the 1990s, she pointed to our boycott of South Africa through the years.
Uma Bharti’s argument was that if we were willing to boycott a country because it imposed racial segregation on its citizens, then surely we had a moral obligation to boycott a country that sent terrorists to unleash violence on our own citizens. As the government of India’s position then (and now) was that Pakistan was actively involved in training terrorists, her argument was difficult to counter.
Nevertheless, many people did oppose Uma Bharti and her ilk. They said that sport helped foster good relations between nations. Because India and Pakistan played each other at cricket, our citizens felt warmly towards each other and the traditional hostility was dissipated. (It’s interesting that many of those calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics because of wounded Tibetans are happy to let us play sport with Pakistan, never mind the murdered Indians. Surely, they can’t have it both ways?)
In fact, there is no evidence that cricket has led to an improvement in Indo-Pak relations. The times of greatest peace have been when no cricket was played. And the resumption of ties has not prevented such conflicts as Kargil from erupting. Certainly, the atmosphere in the stadiums is often far from friendly, with many fans treating cricket as a continuation of war by other means. On the other hand, the last Pakistani tour of India did see a fair amount of goodwill. But, was this because of the cricket? Or was it because India has now moved beyond Pakistan and Indians are no longer as obsessed with the rivalry as we used to be?
My own view on the Beijing Olympics is that we should go. I have enormous respect for the Dalai Lama and tremendous sympathy for the Tibetan cause. Nor do I accept that a boycott would “needlessly politicise the Olympics”. The Olympics are a political statement. They were political in 1936 when Adolf Hitler used them to show off the Third Reich. And they will be political in 2008, when China uses them as a way of showing the world that it has arrived.
But I believe that any sports boycott should be linked either to India’s interests or to a campaign against some completely immoral policy. I can see the argument for boycotting a country that sends terrorists to India. And I can understand why an immoral system of government based on racial superiority (as apartheid was) must be brought down by a global boycott.
Neither of these conditions apply to China. As of now, India has much to gain by being friendly with the Chinese. Nor is the repression of the Tibetans any better or worse than the repression we see in some of the countries of, say, sub-Saharan Africa or South America. Treat Tibet as sufficient cause for a boycott and you’ll have to restrict the Olympics to a handful of nations.
So let’s be honest. We will prevent the Chinese from being embarrassed by protests during the Olympic torch’s passage through India, and we will turn up in Beijing.
Not because sport and politics must be kept separate. But because we have examined the case for a boycott. And it simply isn’t strong enough for India to withdraw from the Games.