Do sports boycotts solve anything? (Is that even the point?)

Between the International Olympic Committee and FIFA enthusiastically defending the Russian government ahead of the 2014 Olympics and 2018 World Cup, respectively, this has been the year of the international sporting organizations loudly telling off everyone for suggesting maybe certain policy actions should have consequences for host nations.

For the latest discussion of 2018 Russian and 2022 Qatari World Cup controversies and potential consequences, listen to my radio segment with Nate on this week’s Arsenal For Democracy – Episode 98 Part 2:
Part 2 – Russian and Qatari World Cups – AFD 98

Here’s a comment from FIFA in July concerning the Russian invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine and whether or not the 2018 World Cup should be yanked from Russia:

“History has shown so far that boycotting sport events or a policy of isolation or confrontation are not the most effective ways to solve problems.”

I feel like the IOC and FIFA and other similar bodies keep asserting that sports sanctions & boycotts don’t solve political problems as if they’re giving new information to the world.

In fact, I would guess that pretty much everyone agrees at this point it’s not so much about solving the problems as about taking away the toys, fun, and games from rogue states, so that they’re at least not rewarded for horrendous behavior.

I’m not sure anyone genuinely believed excluding Apartheid South Africa from the Olympics and a vast array of other global sporting competitions (teams and athletes were restricted from traveling there to play events/matches and South African athletes were generally disinvited from overseas events) was actually going to end apartheid by itself. But that was beside the point.

Indeed, that isolation policy itself became an important catalyst for other related boycott actions to keep up pressure on various countries and the IOC, which was (and is) always trying to weasel its way out of even the mildest policies of applying consequences. In 1968, many of the newly free African nations (joined by the Eastern Bloc) actually did manage to threaten a boycott so convincingly that the IOC was forced to rescind a premature invitation to South Africa in violation of the isolation policy. These actions also reinforced the rise of pan-African unity efforts in the decolonization period (which was still continuing at the time) and helped lay a foundation to maintain unified pressure on South Africa through the 1970s and 1980s.

Let’s look at another major boycott example: Moscow 1980. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in response to the the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan may not have persuaded the USSR to withdraw, but that’s not necessarily a good argument (even in hindsight) for letting the games proceed unaffected, as if nothing was happening. (Had the United States hypothetically been hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, arguably it might have been equally legitimate for other countries to boycott over the U.S. invasion of Iraq the year before.)

Often, opponents of the boycotts make the argument that it’s “only symbolic” but “hurts the athletes,” but I’m not really convinced by that line of reasoning when put against the toll of the actions being protested, assuming the protest is actually warranted. If the world had boycotted the 1936 Summer and Winter Olympics in Nazi Germany, I’m sure that would have been a “symbolic” act that achieved little of substance, but at least the world wouldn’t be kicking itself 78 years later for not having taken any kind of stand. (Unfortunately, I don’t think even Jesse Owens’ inspiring performance outweighs the overall shame of the situation.)

Similarly, I’m unmoved by corporate sponsor crocodile tears against boycotts, which were flowing heavily ahead of the Sochi Winter games this year. I just don’t care about whether they get hurt by a boycott. They should be considering their sponsorships more carefully and applying more pressure on both the hosts/offending nations and the organizing institutions. Participating reflects poorly on them, but I doubt it actually impacts their bottom lines much. They could be using their strength for good, rather than whining.

I suppose the other commonly heard argument against boycotts is about where the line should be drawn, given that there are so many dubious governments/countries hosting international sporting competitions — China’s Olympics in 2008, Bahrain’s Formula One races, and so on — but I’m not sure that’s a great counterargument either. There are degrees of bad behavior, policies, and practices. Just because not all of them warrant or face boycotts, isolation, or official sanctions, doesn’t mean none should. In fact, it might just be an argument for more.

Perhaps these type of boycotts and protests really are just symbolic. But symbolism shouldn’t be discounted out of hand. Sometimes (though not always), when facing a difficult situation with few good responses, it’s worth at least doing something minimal and symbolic to oppose it, rather than doing nothing and appearing to tacitly endorse it by default. It’s a quiet act of resistance that keeps attention on the problem and (one hopes) contributes to shaming the offending country into reform.

Such symbolic resistance — while reviled loudly in the moment by many — is usually remembered with praise by future generations.

Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman protest American and Australian White Supremacist policies, October 16, 1968, Mexico City Olympics. (AP Photographer via Wikimedia)

Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman protest American and Australian White Supremacist policies, October 16, 1968, Mexico City Olympics. (AP Photographer via Wikimedia)

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and a local elected official. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.
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