by Gerald New
It is rare for global politics to intrude on the sailing world, but the recent events in Tibet are threatening to break through the natural easygoing attitude of the sporting community. The heavy-handed crackdown by the Chinese authorities in Tibet has raised the prospect of the 2008 Olympics becoming a political football once again.
The Beijing Games have already received criticism for the heavy air pollution, and several athletes have announced their withdrawal and teams are reported to be looking at ways to protect their athletes from prolonged exposure to the local conditions
Following the recent events in Tibet, the president of the European parliament has suggested a boycott of the Olympics in Beijing if the Chinese government continues to take a hardline attitude to the unrest in Tibet, but the European Union nations and Olympic committees, say they oppose a boycott of the Beijing Games.
In an apparent attempt to head off such boycott calls, the IOC president Jacques Rogge issued a statement over the Easter weekend that the 'Olympics are a force for good' and that change in China will come 'by opening up the country to the scrutiny of the world'. As a competitor for Belgium in sailing events in three Olympics Rogge will have witnessed the impact of the partial boycott in 1976.
Sailing, located away from Beijing on the coast at Qingdao, has long received criticism, but because of the light wind conditions rather than China's human rights record. This by itself should not be a major factor for the teams as it is well documented, and they have thus been able to adapt their selection procedures and training to take account of the expected light conditions.
But, this latest looming scenario is out of the control of the sailing teams and dependent on any sudden escalation of the situation in Tibet and the Chinese reaction to that. If the Tibetan challenge to the Chinese government escalates and becomes a major confrontation than undoubtedly there will be calls for some form of pressure to be applied, bringing into prospect a possible boycott of the Beijing Games by individual countries, as happened in 1980 (Moscow) and again in 1984 (Los Angeles).
The Beijing Games are undoubtedly a major factor in the choice of timing for the present unrest and any unexpected incident by either side could lead to some hard political decisions. Security, already a major element in the modern Games will become an even greater problem - the Olympic torch lighting ceremony in Greece was disrupted by Tibet supporters this weekend. In that case the Games could once again become the bargaining chip in which the dreams of the few will count for little in any hard-ball face off.
In 1980 the USA boycotted the Moscow Games following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Over 60 invited countries did not take part in the 1980 Games. Great Britain supported the boycott but allowed athletes to take part if they wished under the Olympic flag rather than the national flag. Sailors from Great Britain did not take part in 1980.