Passing on the Torch

Why are world leaders boycotting the Beijing opening ceremony?

Gordon Brown, Tessa Jowell, and Denise Lewis

The opening ceremony of the Olympics is hard to take seriously. In the past, the gala has featured such highlights as a parade of athletes marching to disco hits of the 1970s, a troupe of bicyclists imitating Capt. James Cook’s Endeavour, and skating coyotes. Most years, the only excitement is seeing who will get the honor of lighting the all-important Olympic cauldron.

In recent days, however, a “boycott” of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics has become a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, with all three major candidates suggesting that George Bush should at least consider staying home. In the wake of China’s crackdown in Tibet, the leaders of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic announced that they wouldn’t attend the opener, while several other European statesmen are under pressure to do the same. The case of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is the most bizarre: Brown insists he always intended to go to the closing ceremony instead, but his announcement that he wouldn’t be present for the lighting of the flame was initially viewed as a high-profile snub.

It is a bit odd for the world’s leading statesmen to face a tough diplomatic decision over whether to attend this opening celebration. After all, it isn’t exactly a high-level U.N. summit. And historically speaking, it would be more of a statement to attend the ceremony than to stay home: According to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, no American president has ever attended an opening ceremony beyond American borders.

President Clinton sent his daughter to Sydney, Australia. President Bush dispatched his father to Athens, Greece. Indeed, in 2004, the guest list was so thin that the attendance of Muammar Qaddafi’s wife merited mention in a Greek Embassy press release. Tony Blair, among the few high-profile dignitaries to make it to Athens, was the only one of the leaders of the five nations contending for the 2012 Olympics who bothered to show up.

How did skipping the opening ceremony—an event most world leaders don’t attend anyway—suddenly become a bold moral statement? Well before the recent protests in Tibet or even the ongoing debate over Darfur, the International Olympic Committee made it clear that these Olympics would bring attention to China’s human rights record. ”Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, ‘We close the door and say no,’ ” IOC Executive Director François Carrard said when the games were awarded to China in 2001. “We are taking the bet that seven years from now we will see many changes.”

Despite its insistence that “irrelevant political factors” should not play a role in the Olympics, the Chinese government may have unwittingly placed the opening ceremony at the center of the debate. After all, so many foreign leaders are considering visiting in the first place because the Chinese government has pushed the event as a coming-out party for a modern, prosperous, and increasingly influential nation. Since its first bid in 1993, the Chinese leadership emphasized that hosting the Olympics would matter far more for China than it did for other countries. And in its preparations, the government has made it clear that it doesn’t view the Olympics as just an athletic competition. Consider what happened after Steven Spielberg quit his advisory role for the opening ceremony out of protest over China’s Darfur policy. In an attempt to manage the fallout, Xi Jinping, a likely successor to President Hu Jintao, was entrusted with the final preparations for the Olympics—the equivalent to Al Gore being asked to manage the Atlanta games.

The Chinese government—both explicitly and implicitly—endowed the games and their opening event with so much symbolic importance that attendance naturally became a referendum on China itself. In state visits, Hu and other top Chinese leaders have extended invitations to their counterparts everywhere from Australia to Japan. If not for these very public requests, those heads of state could have taken a quiet August vacation without anyone paying it any mind.

The net result of all this is that China has provided the rest of the world with an easy way to criticize its policies. (The same can be said for the international torch relay, which hasn’t exactly been a PR coup for Beijing.) In the past, sending a political message required actually boycotting the games—a step that very few countries appear inclined to take. A full boycott would be a far greater embarrassment for the Chinese, but the sudden prominence of the opening ceremony still allows countries to send a clear message without sacrificing their high jumpers’ and gymnasts’ only shot at international glory.

Of course, many world leaders would probably prefer not to have a public forum to air their views on China. Given the country’s growing economic and political power, heads of state—like President Bush, who made his decision to attend as a “sports fan“—are often shy about criticizing Beijing too loudly. Had they simply taken their customary rain check, they could have avoided making a yea-or-nay statement concerning China’s policies. Instead, they actually have to take a stand—if only a symbolic one—on Beijing’s human rights record. As a result, Beijing may be learning that there is a danger in asking for an RSVP too early.

Correction, April 14, 2008: A photo caption on this page originally misspelled Tessa Jowell’s name. The error has been corrected.