Olympic boycott would be counterproductive

The grim news out of Tibet has increased calls for the United States and other nations to boycott the Beijing Olympics in August. That would be a bad idea for several reasons.

First, it didn't work the last time.

In 1979, The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, drawing worldwide condemnation. President Jimmy Carter pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The committee voted not to participate, and 64 other countries' committees joined the boycott.

The U.S.S.R. won 80 gold medals in the boycotted games.

Did the boycott prompt the Soviets to leave Afghanistan? Not exactly. They pulled out nine years later.

In the meantime, the Soviets and East Germans returned the favor by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. The U.S. won 83 gold medals in L.A. Guess we showed them.

Second, it won't work this time, either.

If the U.S. or any other country boycotts the Olympics, the games will go on anyway. China will issue indignant denunciations of those countries that don't show up, and dismiss calls for easing its authoritarian rule.

Any opportunity the U.S. has to apply pressure on Chinese leaders to moderate their regime will be lost as U.S. leaders watch from a distance.

Third, it will punish our athletes for no good reason. Olympic athletes have trained for years to reach the pinnacle of international competition. To deny them the opportunity to match their skills with the best in the world dampens the Olympic experience for everyone — including those athletes whose countries do participate, because their victories will be diminished by the reduced level of competition.

Finally, the United States will miss the opportunity to push for further liberalization by the Chinese while participating in the games as a recognition of the progress China has already made.

The incidents in Tibet are not acceptable, and there is no reason for the U.S. to pretend that they are. President Bush telephoned Chinese President Hu Jintao on Wednesday to urge restraint in Tibet and encouraged Jintao to meet with the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader.

For his part, the Dalai Lama has said he wants to see the Olympics take place in Beijing and opposes a boycott. He also says he wants "autonomy" for Tibet within China, but not independence.

Hosting the Olympics puts China squarely in the world spotlight. That scrutiny is a far more powerful incentive than any boycott could hope to be.

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