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Olympic politics

- April 8, 2008

“Dan Drezner”:http://www.danieldrezner.com/archives/003780.html and “Steve Clemons”:http://www.thewashingtonnote.com/archives/2008/04/hillarys_call_t/ argue it out over whether or not the US should boycott the Beijing Olympics (Steve says no, Dan says that it would be no harm if the West uses the threat of non-attendance to squeeze some concessions from the Chinese). For me, the interesting question is why the Olympics are so politically important, and how their importance seems to be changing. International relations scholars don’t have much to say about the politics of the modern Olympics (there’s a book by Christopher Hill, but that’s about it), but it’s surely an important international institution; as we can see from recent events, states pay a _lot_ of attention to it. This was true of the original Olympic festival in Greece too; Martin Wight identifies the festival as one of the key institutions binding together the Greek city-state system (although the original Olympics had a military truce attached to it, so it was obviously more important in the ways that IR scholars usually measure importance.

The current debacle though seems to mark an important change in the politics of the Olympics. As best I understand it (I am open to corrections if wrong), in the past, Olympics politics have concerned inter-state rivalry, and have been driven by decisions on the part of traditional political elites. The US boycott of the Soviet games in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 resulted from a decision by Jimmy Carter, and the tit-for-tat boycott by the Soviets and their allies of the LA games in 1984 resulted from a top level decision too. The dynamic driving the Beijing Olympics seems to me to be rather different; what we are seeing is that the politics of boycott is being driven by mass-publics, and most recently by protestors, rather than by political leaders. In the absence of the public unrest that has culminated in the recent protests in Paris, I doubt very much that Western political leaders would be muttering about not showing at the opening ceremonies – the geopolitical stakes of market access etc are likely more important to them than the fate of Tibetans. But given the widespread public reaction in the West, even leaders like Gordon Brown, who obviously want _very much_ to attend, are having to insulate themselves from public pressures by taking other actions liable to annoy China (such as meeting with the Dalai Lama). In short, I think we are seeing how public opinion and organized cross-national opposition can create significant constraints on the ability of leaders to respond to what they see as the geostrategic necessity of keeping China happy. This is, as best as I am aware, a new phase in the development of the Olympics.