BY NOW YOU KNOW about the damming of the Yangtze, the poisoning of the Songhua, and the dirty coal. You've heard about the melamine-laced pet food, lead-painted Sesame Street dolls, and textiles bathed in formaldehyde. Ditto the SARS cover-up, the black bear farming, the shark-finning, and the suppression of such things as the Internet, radio, journalism, religion, and free speech. Funding the genocide in Darfur? Yep, got that too.
China is a bad country. Well, China is a country with a bad government; the Chinese people are far too subjugated to be complicit. The International Olympic Committee knew that back in 2001, when it granted China the Games. But instead of improving over the last seven years as hoped, Beijing took the nod as a validation. Sure, they'll switch off the smokestacks and march out the dancers, but as soon as the athletes leave, they'll go right back to their evil ways. Which is why we should boycott.
I know: It'll never happen—even if the air quality keeps top endurance athletes like marathon-world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie from competing. But it should. When Jimmy Carter skipped the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, he was widely criticized for dashing the hopes of America's athletes to further a political agenda. History, however, has proven him right. Communist Moscow, like Nazi-controlled Germany in the 1930s, had no business hosting such a powerful symbol of international cooperation. Although the athletes suffered, their sacrifice, in some small way, helped lead to the breakup of the Soviet Union. And if the Afghanistan invasion (theirs, not ours) justified a boycott, how is it that the Tibet occupation does not?
The answer is as simple as it is irrational: It happened too long ago. China invaded Tibet in 1950; until March's violent uprising and even more violent crackdown, outrage about that seemed as faded as a free tibet bumper sticker on a '96 Subaru. Now, in case there's any question that Tibetans are still pissed, Chinese tanks are rolling through Lhasa, dozens of protesters have been killed, and the Dalai Lama has threatened to resign unless his followers return to nonviolent resistance. "Free Tibet" isn't a tired cliché; it's the cry of a people who want their country back.
Climbers want Tibet back, too. Beijing closed the Tibetan side of Everest this May so that a team of Chinese alpinists could carry the Olympic torch to the summit. And to ensure that no pesky Westerners were waiting at the top to ruin the photo op like they did in London and Paris, China got Nepalese officials to restrict their side, too. Personally, I think the mountain could use a break; it's overrun with Richie Riches buying their way to the summit. But cutting the Nepalese Sherpas and their families out of the $4 million that a typical climbing season brings to their country isn't exactly fair, either.
What's clear now is that street protesting won't prevent the Beijing Games. And even if Nicolas Sarkozy and other heads of state do boycott the opening ceremonies, that's little more than a cream-puff gesture. Which brings us to the athletes, who are far from powerless. Remember the '68 Mexico City Games, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a show of Black Power? If only today's Olympians had their courage. But they've been silenced. Beyond the gags that come with many modern corporate sponsorship deals, Rule 51 of the IOC's Olympic Charter prohibits "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda."
Screw the IOC. I'd be the first to cheer if our athletes decided to ignore the charter and seize the moment to prove that they're more than just delivery instruments for the logos they wear. Pull a prayer flag out on the medal stand. Say something about Darfur. Do something besides cry while the national anthem is played. But I don't think they will. So it's going to be left to me and you—the sports fans—to make a statement. When the Games come on in August, I'm changing the channel. If millions of viewers around the world join me, we can stick it to China with the next best thing to a full-fledged boycott: the lowest-rated Olympics in history.