Monday, April 14, 2008

What would Eric Liddell do?

The 1924 Olympic Games in Paris are most remembered today because a single athlete made a decision. British runner Eric Liddell refused to run on a Sunday, spurning appeals to his patriotism and sportsmanship, because he would not compromise his Christian faith. Liddell's story was dramatized in the film Chariots of Fire, which won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture.

In 2008, the Summer Olympic Games are being hosted in Beijing by one of the world's most brutal regimes, the People's Republic of China. As governments and citizens debate whether and how free countries should participate in this event, Liddell's act of conscience may serve as a guide.

It has been noted that countries whose names begin with "People's Republic" are always neither. China is no exception, and the world has watched for 60 years as the cancer of communism has ruined a magnificent, millennia-old culture. Despite being an economic powerhouse, the PRC remains an enemy to free nations, its own citizens and the ideals of liberty.

Ostensibly, the Olympics are about nations putting aside their weapons and differences for the sake and nobility of pure athletic competition. As the Games have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry of sponsorships and media rights -- the International Olympic Committee itself having morphed into a notorious cash cow -- it may behoove us to squint a little closer at the Olympics' altruistic pretensions.

But, even if the Games were the idealistic love-in of hand-holding and pole-vaulting that its profiteers purvey, it does little good to beat swords into ploughshares when only one side does the beating. In fact, it can do a great deal of harm.

The Chinese government has given no indication that the warm glow of sport will prompt them to kinder treatment either of its own citizens, or of other countries. Repression, brutality and torture continue apace. China executes far more people than the rest of the world combined. Moreover, as this column is written, Chinese troops occupy two million square kilometres of other nations' land. Does this not offer some perspective on the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan (650,000 square kilometres)?

Parallels have been drawn between Beijing 2008 and the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and they are apt. Both events figure to be international showcases for despotic regimes. If one extrapolates the comparison to include Germany's adventures a few short years after their festivities had ended, it is reasonable to fear for the security of Taiwan from the instant China's last dove is caged.

In general, boycotts are tricky things, often lending themselves to herd mentality. Olympic boycotts are uniquely problematic, as world-class athletes are informed by supremely unathletic politicians that the moment for which they have worked their whole lives will no longer be available to them. It seems, therefore, that the course of action most fitting with the ideals of free nations is to allow athletes to decide for themselves whether and how they will participate in these Games.

As fate would have it, Eric Liddell died in occupied China at the end of the Second World War. He had been working as a missionary there, and succumbed to a brain tumor and typhoid in a prison camp. A supremely talented runner, Liddell chose to use his skill and fame in the service of his most cherished beliefs. One hopes today's athletes will look to Liddell's example in deciding how best to spend their gifts.