Can you remember (without checking wiki) why nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics? And why did the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics? And does it really matter anymore?
Sixty-five nations, led by the U.S., boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games. The reason was because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Iran also boycotted because they disliked both superpowers!)
Four years later in Los Angeles the Eastern Bloc nations, citing security fears and "anti-Soviet sentiment," also boycotted. It's hard to divide the complex issues of world politics, proud nations being shamed and school-yard tantrums from why they boycotted and what impact they thought it would have.
Who are the winners and losers in boycotts?
The political machines that powered the Cold War thought they were winners in exalting their ideology via a boycott. After all, the Olympics and sport are powerful political tools.
On the negative side, the Olympics are also a once in a lifetime competition for athletes. To train your whole career and miss out is a tragedy. A U.S. based fast food chain, before the 1984 Games, ran a promotion entitled "When the U.S. Wins, You Win." Customers scratched a ticket and if the U.S. won that event then they won a menu item. With the Soviet boycott the U.S. won more than expected leading to a financial disaster!
So do boycotts work? There are always voices calling for a boycott of Olympics and sporting events. For example, some called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympic because of their human rights record. But many in sports sociology question what impact the Olympic boycotts had. So are all sporting boycotts impotent?
Black and White
Back in the 1976 Olympics, 24 countries boycotted in protest against the IOC not expelling New Zealand who sanctioned a rugby tour of apartheid South Africa. The boycotts against apartheid over the years had an impact. Some also argue that the push against Communism, of which the Olympics boycott was just one part, also had an impact. So boycotts can have an impact depending on the cause and longevity of the protest.
Justice or Grace
What is the balance between protesting a cause and maintaining relationships so to shepherd others back to a more correct position? There will always be issues to protest against ANY nation or individual. The question is how do you create a trusting relationship so those protests are heard and help to modify behaviour?
This is the same tension theology wrestles with in calling for justice for wrongs done and showing grace for reconciliation. In the Biblical story these are both satisfied on the cross where God's justice and grace are displayed in their fullness. But in the sporting world I have no answers apart to point to this Biblical idea of reconciliation: upholding a cause but restoring a relationship.
It is difficult to unravel the interwoven twines of politics, sport and theology. This is worth considering as we watch the Rio Olympics in a few months' time. Look for the political undertones in the nation's victories. Notice the way sport is used as a vehicle to esteem the different ideologies. And reflect on the way that ultimately the gospel message provides a template for peace and unity.
Jeremy Dover is a former sports scientist and Pastor
Jeremy Dover's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/jeremy-dover.html