The Olympic Torch made its way through San Francisco yesterday, the only American stop on its storied journey around the world. And what a spectacle it was – a San Francisco treat, if you will.

Two hundred police officers were called in to escort the flame in hopes of avoiding the kind of skirmishes that happened as the flame made its way through London and Paris recently. Still, overzealous protestors jumped barricades and shouted “Shame on China” as they attempted to interfere with the procession.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi wants the U.S. Olympic Committee to consider boycotting the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing later this year. I strongly disagree, but at least she has a considered, coherent reason for her suggestion. That’s a luxury many of her San Francisco constituents apparently cannot afford.

The enraged protestors want the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the Beijing Olympics in order to punish China for its continued human rights violations, especially as highlighted by the recent turmoil in Tibet. Hear that China? If you keep silencing journalists and maiming monks, America – the coolest kid on the playground – won’t play with you anymore.

Honestly, is the Chinese government supposed to buckle to that sort of bumbling, mindless attempt at coercion? Not caring for what human rights organizations the world over have been saying for decades, is the Chinese government just going to freak and comply in face of demands from a few San Francisco hippies-for-hire? Of course not.

Is the point then simply to polarize Chinese Americans or the good people of China by rubbing our noses at their country’s special moment? I hope not, but perhaps the protestors should consider some context. Screaming anti-Chinese sentiments in the shadow of Angel Island – the immigration station that was essentially a jail for Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act – presents a wry human rights irony for our own country. The point of the protest was to bring real, meaningful, lasting social change to the largest polity in the world, but such hackneyed juxtaposition can only undermine that goal.

We have the right in this great democracy to protest, and boy do we use it. But, more importantly, we have the responsibility as mature human beings to act in the way most rational for fulfilling our purpose, and we don’t seem to be too big on that.

If you have a strong political message to send, why would you boycott one of the world’s largest stages? Should Tommie Smith and John Carlos have boycotted the ’68 Olympics because they were upset by racial injustice in American society? Some folks suggested they and other black athletes do just that. But the two American sprinters luckily proved smart enough not to shoot themselves in the foot.

Smith won gold in the 200-meter dash, while Carlos took bronze in the same event. As the Star Spangled Banner played to honor their victories, the two men raised black-gloved fists in the most memorable and damning protest in sports history. The black power salute – initially ostracized, but today celebrated as the heroic gesture that it was – would never have happened had Smith and Carlos decided to stay home.

Certainly the Chinese government, and perhaps even the International Olympic Committee, is terrified of the possibility of the repeat of such a moment. So, my earnest agitators, why ease their fears?

The concept of athletes taking a stand, however, leads us to another dangerous precipice. In 1968, Jim Crow was a tangible reality that black American athletes could readily understand. Thus, Smith and Carlos were politically aware black athletes who protested something that directly affected them. Can that be said for any of the American athletes who may choose to take a stand in Beijing? Probably not.

As much as I do want to see Michael Phelps don the “Free Tibet” Speedo when he breaks those world records, I’d like much more that any political statements made by protestors at events like the one in San Francisco or by athletes at the Olympics be heartfelt, informed and substantive. Wouldn’t it be better for all of us if these Olympics went without empty grandstanding by athletes who feel compelled to protest because of the mayhem surrounding these games?

Pelosi wants to boycott the opening ceremony because it is an aggrandizement of the Chinese government. Fair enough, but how about our lawmakers stop being lazy and stop pretending that the Olympics and their athletes have any more capital to effect social change than the government? How about getting some legislation passed, meeting with and pressuring China diplomatically – you know, the sorts of things that actually work?

The Olympics certainly have a political aspect, and there’s nothing wrong with athletes behaving as Smith and Carlos did. However, there are so many more substantive ways to bring change, and it’s in our best interest to pursue those first.

Imran Syed was the Daily’s fall/winter editorial page editor in 2007. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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