In the midst of a tumultuous presidential campaign, all three major candidates took time out this past week to declare that if the Chinese don’t change their attitudes about Tibet in a hurry, President George W. Bush should boycott the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing this summer.
In truth, any time all the candidates take the same position on anything, it’s probably a sign something odd is going on. And when the Olympics and politics mix — and they always do, despite all the protestations otherwise — presidential candidates tend to get crushed in the frenzy, especially if they’re Democrats.
That’s because, as political junkies know, the Summer Olympics have historically had a way of boosting the candidacies of Republicans.
It’s an odd coincidence that the Summer Games always occur during a presidential election year (Until 1992, when the Summer and Winter Games were separated, the Winter Games also occurred in election years). But that means that, in addition to affecting our Wheaties boxes, they also affect our politics, if only indirectly. This year, for example, the Beijing games come smack in the middle of August, when one or the other of the political parties traditionally holds its convention. But this year, because of this conflict with the Olympics, both parties have moved their gatherings back-to-back to the last two weeks of August. That means that if the Clinton-Obama fight goes to the convention, the primary campaign will go a month longer than it would have had there been no Summer Olympics competing with it for addled television viewers. Any bump in the polls the Democrats (who go first) might receive will be instantly wiped out a week later when the GOP convention takes place. And the fall campaign will be shorter than ever.
That doesn’t even begin to consider the increasing possibility that this Olympics may produce some kind of international incident. (This year’s torch-bearing ceremony has already attracted scores of protests.) Unfortunately, throughout the past 40 years, the Summer Games have produced an awful act of terrorism (Munich in 1972) and a few other acts of violence (the Mexico City massacre of more than 300 student protesters shortly before the Games in 1968 and the Atlanta bombing in 1996). Any foreign-affairs “crisis” these Games produce will probably benefit — as such crises tend to do — the party in power. Even in 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos rose to the victor’s stand and gave the black-power salute during the playing of the National Anthem, the ensuing protest probably helped the GOP more than it did the black-solidarity cause by triggering a backlash. (George Foreman, in contrast, waved an American flag when he won his medal.)
Also working against the Democrats, the Summer Games usually produce a surge of patriotism that helps Republicans. In 1984, Ronald Reagan rode the frenzy of the LA games (where the US did exceptionally well, largely because the Russians and their Soviet allies boycotted) and its constant cries of “USA! USA!” all the way to Dallas, where some of the gold-medal-winning athletes appeared at the GOP convention. Four years earlier, of course, the US victory over the Russians in ice hockey at the Winter Games might have produced a similar halo for Jimmy Carter, if he hadn’t then led a coalition boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow, in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Carter’s action serves as a reminder that any American politician who calls for an athletic boycott of the Olympics does so at his or her peril.)