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Will Darfur Trigger A 2008 Olympic Boycott?

Despite recent signs of progress in achieving peace and security in Sudan’s Darfur region, US human rights coalitions continue to draw up plans for a possible boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The groups want China to reduce commercial and political ties with Khartoum, whom they accuse of aiding Janjaweed militias in attacks against Darfur villagers and rebel groups.

Historian Dr. Susan Bachrach is curator of the Nazi 1936 Olympics exhibition at the US Holocaust Museum, which focused on unsuccessful efforts to stage an American boycott in the years leading up to the Berlin Olympics, prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. She notes that shortly before the Berlin games, the vote to keep athletes at home ultimately failed to pass America’s 1936 Olympics governing body, the International Amateur Athletics Union, by a close margin, but says it was an act of conscience that had a symbolic impact on Germany’s staging of the games.

“When Hitler came to power in 1933, there were anti-Nazi groups that formed in the United States that were appalled at the Nazi regimes attacks on trade unions and members of left-wing parties, not only of Jews, but also of Catholics. So it was building an opposition to the conduct that had already been quite evident – the kind of persecution and repression that immediately happened after 1933 in the assumption of power by the Nazis,” she said.

Bachrach says it is hard to draw conclusions about staging a modern-day Olympics boycott from the 1936 experience, but examining the parallels does increase an understanding of the behavior exhibited by an Olympic host country in the face of a boycott threat.

“There were many arguments that advocates for a boycott were making in the years leading up to the Olympics. The primary issue prior to those games was not only the general political repression that was going on, but very specifically, the question about whether Jewish athletes were going to be allowed to participate. And once Nazi Germany could give assurances it very much wanted to have these games for propaganda purposes, for reasons of international prestige and also to build domestic support at home, that it made some gestures to Olympic officials to assure them that there wouldn’t be overt discrimination,” she said.

Those gestures, according to Bachrach, included the removal of anti-Jewish signs from the sight of visitors and a general effort to what she terms “clean up” the appearance of German cities where the games were being staged, Berlin for the summer games and Garmisch-Partenkirchen for the winter games.

Some observers have suggested that recent moves by Chinese officials to help obtain Khartoum’s approval of a hybrid international peacekeeping force for Darfur and Beijing’s assignment of technical personnel to Sudan to assist in logistics for an international humanitarian mission might have the impact of softening a 2008 boycott movement. Holocaust historian Bachrach says the long-term effects of a 1936 boycott threat seem quite transparent to us today in light of its failure to stop the onset of war. But the movement merits a legacy of respect for the people who demonstrated courage and moral awareness.

“In 1935-36, it was a worthy goal for people who opposed it. So I think we can very much see them as models of behavior of people who had foresight in terms of seeing how things were going to develop there. In the case of Nazi Germany, it’s quite clear that whatever pressure was exerted on that regime was not of any lasting effect,” she points out.