Boycotting Chinese food, ignoring Chinese repression
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Boycotting Chinese food, ignoring Chinese repression

American athletes are threatening to boycott this summer’s Olympics in China — to boycott the food, that is.

Human rights advocates around the world are urging athletes to boycott the games to protest China’s repression in Tibet and support for the genocidal regime in Sudan. But so far the only cause sufficiently urgent to move American athletes to protest is the danger of unsanitary food in Beijing.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has angrily denounced the idea of boycotting the games in protest against genocide or totalitarianism. "Put together a ranking of the worst ideas ever conceived and ‘Olympic boycott’ would be at the top of that list," says USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel. But boycotting China’s food is a different story.

The USOC plans to bring its own produce to China because of concerns about the safety of local food. Perhaps these U.S. Olympic officials heard that thousands of Japanese recently became ill from eating Chinese dumplings contaminated by pesticides. How will America’s athletes elude the Olympic ban on bringing private food to the games? Where there’s a will, there’s a way. U.S. Olympic officials have devised a plan to have the American team eat all its meals in a training facility that is situated outside the gates of the Beijing Olympic Park and thus outside the rules governing the source of their food. The U.S. Olympic Committee could use a history lesson.

During the year preceding the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, Americans vigorously debated whether to boycott the games as a protest against the Hitler regime’s savage persecution of German Jews. The U.S. Olympic Committee opposed a boycott, claiming that sports should be separate from politics. The Roosevelt administration, which at that point was still interested in maintaining friendly relations with Germany, also opposed boycotting the games.

Supporters of the boycott included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, many American Jewish organizations, a number of mayors, governors and members of Congress, 41 college presidents, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and two important Christian periodicals, Commonweal and The Christian Century.

Yet only a handful of American athletes were willing to take a moral stand and risk their careers by refusing to participate in the Nazi Olympics.

A number of American Jewish athletes refused to go to Berlin, including high-jumper Syd Koff, who had already qualified for the 1936 team; sprinter Herman Neugass, from Tulane University ("It’s my unequivocal opinion nobody should go because of the way Jews are treated," he wrote to a New Orleans newspaper, explaining his decision); and Harvard track and field stars Norman Cahners and Milton Green.

But only one non-Jewish American athlete joined the boycott: speed-skater Jack Shea, who had won a gold medal in the 193′ games and had every reason to expect he would qualify for the 1936 team. Shea never tried out for the 1936 competition; his conscience would not allow him to. In October 1934, he announced publicly that he would not take part in the Berlin Games as a protest against the mistreatment of Germany’s Jews. (Sadly, Shea’s courageous action is still not adequately explained on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s own Website.) Hitler instructed his thugs to keep out of sight during the Olympics.

America’s athletes arrived, the games proceeded, and international press coverage depicted Nazi Germany in glowing terms. CBS correspondent Howard K. Smith, who was stationed in Berlin, remarked later that the 1936 Olympics were a "triumph for Hitler," perhaps the Nazis’ single greatest propaganda victory. Hitler used America’s athletes to bolster his image. Now China hopes to do likewise.

Will today’s American athletes repeat their predecessors’ tragic mistake? They may dream of following in the footsteps of Jesse Owens, the African-American track star who shocked Hitler with his athletic accomplishments in Berlin. But their real role model should be Jack Shea, whose moral accomplishment was greater than anything that can ever be achieved on a track or a skating rink.

China is not Nazi Germany. But it denies basic civil rights to its citizens; it provides missiles and other advanced weapons to rogue regimes such as Syria, North Korea, and Iran; it is the most important supporter of the genocidal government of Sudan; and it is now engaged in a campaign of brutal repression in occupied Tibet. Surely those causes should be as compelling as the Chinese dumplings that the U.S. Olympic Committee intends to boycott.

Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

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