John J. MacAloon's eloquent advocacy of intercultural communication, exchange, and education in Olympic sports echoes and brings contemporary relevance to the internationalism of Pierre de Coubertin. MacAloon argues that the ultimate test of the Olympic Movement should be the way that during its diverse activities, it enables athletes, coaches, game officials, decision-makers, journalists, spectators, and citizens of host cities and countries to leave their comfort zones to engage with and learn from those from other cultures. In the process, he believes, they will gain confidence in speaking out against xenophobia and hatred, no mean contribution in an increasingly divisive world. This personal reflection upon MacAloon's work outlines the core of his ideas as he first presented them in the 1980s and how they were interpreted at the time; recounts the innovative and illuminating ways of his ethnographical research on the road of Asian and Olympic torch relays, at Olympic and Winter Olympic Games, and his field trips with colleagues, activists, and Olympic insiders at colloquia and conferences; and discusses the possibilities and challenges of intercultural education in Olympic sport today, placing them in the context of the recent calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

Of John J. MacAloon's many contributions to scholarship, education, and sport policy, the most important for me has been his eloquent championing of intercultural communication, exchange, and education as both measure of contemporary sports and urgently needed corrective to current practices. MacAloon's advocacy echoes and brings contemporary relevance to the internationalism of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the most successful version of modern Olympic Games and the subject of his brilliant This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. He argues that the ultimate test of the Olympic Movement should be the way that during its diverse activities, athletes, coaches, game officials, decision-makers, journalists, spectators and citizens of host cities and countries are enabled to leave their comfort zones to engage with and learn from those from other cultures. In the process, he believes, they will gain confidence in speaking out against xenophobia and hatred. While MacAloon's primary focus is the Olympic and Winter Olympic Games, he extends the imperative to everyday sport, arguing that in our increasingly diverse and dynamic societies, where “otherness” has often become bitterly divisive, thoughtful and intentional intercultural education through sport could help make the world more respectful and safer for difference. First penned almost four decades ago, MacAloon's indictment and call to action remain even more telling today. At the time of writing, as frightening human rights abuses in China fuel worldwide talk about a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, MacAloon's ruminations about the obligations and shortcomings of the Olympic project should be kept in mind by every participant.

This article is written in critical admiration of MacAloon's ideas for intercultural Olympic education. I first met John in a lineup at passport control in the Athens airport in 1984, with both of us on our way to the International Olympic Academy (IOA) in Ancient Olympia, Greece. We debated the possibilities of Olympic reform for the two weeks we were together in Greece, and we have done so almost ever since. We've collaborated on research, argued about scholarship and politics, stayed in each other's houses, celebrated each other's triumphs, and consoled each other during difficult times.2 I've learned enormously from him over the years. I consider him a friend.

The article is in three parts. First, I will outline the core of MacAloon's ideas as he first presented them in the 1980s and how they were interpreted at the time. Second, I will recount the innovative and illuminating ways in which John “walked his own talk” in his ethnographical research on the road of Asian and Olympic torch relays, at Olympic and Winter Olympic Games, and his field trips with colleagues, activists and Olympic insiders at colloquia and conferences. In 1984, for example, John recruited anthropologists from both the North and the Global South for a collective examination of intercultural relations at the Los Angeles Olympics. In 1988, in collaboration with fellow cultural anthropologist Kang Shin-Pyo of Hanyang University in Seoul, he organized a three-year study of the economic, political, and intercultural experiences stimulated by the Seoul Olympic Games that involved scholars from both sides of the Cold War divide and included a bus tour of South Korea along the route of the Olympic Torch Relay. Third, I will discuss the possibilities and challenges of intercultural education in Olympic sport today and place them in the context of the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Intercultural Education and Olympic Sport

I have known about the intercultural promise of the Olympics all my life. My father covered the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and returned to regale his nine-year-old son about the chance the Games afforded to learn from other people. I particularly remember his stories about how athletes crashed the barriers separating the Olympic Village for the communist bloc teams and that for the Western countries and hung out together. In the early days of my own track and field career, we were often billeted in the homes of volunteers in the places where we competed, sharing their meals, and hearing their stories. We took advantage of trips to New York, Chicago, and London to visit museums, art galleries, and take in theater. I took it for granted that sports could teach me about the places and people where we competed. What I learned from my encounter with Japan during the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo changed my life.3

John was the first person I ever met who actually studied whether the lofty rhetoric of intercultural exchange was realized and insisted that it be made intentional. That's what we most talked about in Olympia in 1984 on the eve of the Los Angeles Olympics. Two years later, I asked him to set out his views for an audience of Canadian Olympic leaders, current and former Olympic athletes, coaches, journalists, and teachers at what we called the annual “challenge address” at the Olympic Academy of Canada, held that year at York University's Glendon College in Toronto. It was a time when the Canadian Olympic community was moving inexorably toward the single-minded pursuit of the podium in a state-sponsored blend of nationalism and high performance I called “the philosophy of excellence.”4 When he reminded them that the aim of the Olympic Movement was to “educate young people through sport in a spirit of better understanding between each other and of friendship,” they all sat back and basked in the humanitarian glow. But the smiles quickly disappeared when he admonished them with example after example about the emptiness of that rhetoric. “I know of not one National Olympic Committee (NOC) or National Federation (NF) that seriously encourages or takes it upon itself to provide the resources for such a study of other cultures by athletes or coaches named to international teams, either before or after journeys abroad,” he told them. If the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) did not incorporate an explicit strategy of intercultural education into their activities, he said, “then honesty and decency require we drop all our talk about sport and intercultural understanding. If, on the contrary, the choice is not to abandon the larger aims of Olympic-style sport and the Olympic movement, then it is time to stop piously repeating them and to start working toward them.”5

Following Coubertin, John argued that “the mere fact that persons from different cultures assemble in the same place to take part in the same events assures absolutely nothing in the way of mutual understanding.” He dismissed that as “cosmopolitanism.” To achieve “true internationalism,” he said, Olympic teams must encourage visits and exchanges among the people they visit, the testing of prejudices and expectations against the host culture, and careful study of the host country's history and political economy. They must discourage the reproduction of the conditions and habits back home. The same effort should be made in the increasingly diverse societies like Canada and the United States, he said, where sport could enable greater knowledge and understanding of the “internal others” and make our societies safer for difference.

Yet too often, John told them, none of that happens. He wondered out loud whether the failure to pursue genuine internationalism reflected hypocrisy or had become a deliberate strategy of high performance sport:

As Coubertin suggests, recreating the habits and conditions of one's own country in foreign ones is a major barrier against learning anything. Yet this is exactly what “good” delegation heads, team managers and coaches seek to accomplish these days. On the folk theory (which is all is it) that the more familiar the surroundings the better the athletic performance will be, they go to extraordinary lengths to arrange accommodations, recreation, food, even bedding as little different as possible from what is had at home. Indeed, a whole new caste of technicians has arisen claiming to justify such views on a “scientific” basis. I refer to those mind-control managers who call themselves “sport psychologists,” but who for the most part, are anything but. Indeed, they abominate the title, since professional psychology is concerned with the whole psyche, the well-being of the entire person, not with screening out everything in an athlete's life and circumstance that might conceivably “interfere” with his or her performance, regardless of the effect on the subject's moral vision, social relations or mental health.6

John's “challenge address” rippled through the Olympic Movement in Canada for many years. It encouraged the COA leadership to stage an elaborate evening of Korean music and dance in conjunction with the annual meeting as the 1988 Olympics in Seoul approached. Within the Olympic Academy, it persuaded us to strengthen the preparation of delegates to the IOA in Greece so that they could more fruitfully engage with those from other countries; and to invite international representatives to the annual sessions in Canada. Within the organizing committee for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, it strengthened the ambitions to undertake an internationally focused educational program directed at Alberta (and ultimately Canadian) schools, and assist the small towns surrounding Calgary who sought to “adopt” and host delegations and visitors from other countries, including those from the communist bloc. In sports like track and field, it encouraged athletes on international exchanges to ask for formal tours and social exchanges. In Toronto, it gave important legitimacy to a group of Korean Canadians who sought to give Canadian athletes, coaches, officials, journalists, and tourists preparing for the Games in Seoul an immersive sense of the history, politics, and culture of Korea.

The times were supportive. Despite the Cold War Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984, the Canadian sports community, supported by the federal agency, Sport Canada, engaged in regular exchanges with counterparts in the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, and Cuba to learn more about their vaunted high performance systems. Some of the ensuing relationships turned into lifelong friendships. Although very few predicted the end of the Cold War, the spirit of glasnost in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European communist states, the remarkable democratization of South Korea, the energetic diplomacy conducted by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Juan Antonio Samaranch to avert another boycott, and the inclusive, outreach of the Seoul organizing committee under the banner of “Seoul to the World, the World to Seoul” all served to elevate the priorities of international exchange through Olympic sport. John's widely distributed Toronto talk provided powerful affirmation and rationale.

To be sure, there were skeptics and dissenters among those in high performance sport. COA president and Olympic gold medalist Roger Jackson told me that intercultural exchange is “very important, but it can only happen after the Games or even after an athlete's active career.” Abby Hoffman, the director general of Sport Canada and a four-time Olympian, said that “it is simply not part of our mandate.” At the 1988 Games themselves, there was a striking difference between the experiences of credentialed athletes and coaches in the Olympic Village and those of Canadians in the Olympic Youth Camp and the families of athletes and coaches and tourists. Competing athletes and their coaches steadfastly declined the many opportunities the organizing committee and the Korean-Canadian Council offered to get to know Korea. In fact, many of them acclimatized in Japan prior to their events, oblivious to the slight, and left as soon as their events were concluded. One athlete told me that “all we did was train, play and watch television. People ask me about Korea and I've got nothing to say.” On the other hand, Seoul provided insightful experiences for those who had to stay elsewhere. The executive director of a provincial track and field association said: “My wife and I stayed with a Korean family and it's been the highlight of the trip. They've gone out of their way to befriend us and took us around the city. We joined them for Thanksgiving (Chusok), and it was terribly moving. We have been most impressed by the respect paid to elders and the deep anguish about the divided country. We thought everyone in the South hated the North.”7

John's challenge raised the possibility of intercultural education in other levels of sport, including the biannual Canada Games and the rapidly expanding international competition circuits enabled by the IOC's abolition of amateurism in 1983 and the possibilities for commercialization demonstrated by the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I was particularly excited about the possibilities of field trips and exchanges in conjunction with intercollegiate sports. In other divisions of the university, faculty, staff, students, and donors struggled to create “study abroad” programs to enable learning, research, and meaningful exchange in other regions of Canada and abroad. The capacity of many of these programs was limited because they were difficult to finance; if students had to pay their own way, it restricted access and opportunity to those from comfortable backgrounds. In sports, by comparison, the costs of travel and accommodation were already taken care of so it would only take some advanced planning, non-sport contacts, and local expenses to provide participants with insightful experiences.

But with a few important exceptions such as the Canada Games, where organizers created intriguing opportunities for athletes to meet with athletes from other provinces and territories, and to get to know the culture of the host region, few coaches or athletes were interested. While other students vied for “study abroad” opportunities or saved religiously to pay for a trip to Europe, sports teams would fly in, compete in their events, and fly home. Even in educational institutions, “sport for sport's sake” had become the mantra. It was crazy-making.

Travels with John

John not only reaffirmed the Coubertin vision for intercultural education in Olympic sports but sought to study whether and how it occurred in practice in his far-ranging scholarship on the Asian and Olympic torch relays, at major games, and during the conferences he staged or helped stage in conjunction with Olympic Games. He not only “walked the talk” but enabled colleagues from around the world to engage it in, significantly enhancing the traditional model of the academic colloquium to do it.

The academic conference or seminar to produce a collection of articles or an edited book has become a familiar, effective, and enjoyable form of knowledge production. Scholars prepare drafts of papers in advance, assemble in-person (pre-COVID), and present them to each other with ample time for questions, critique, and suggestions for improvement, before heading home to turn their drafts into polished papers for editing and publication. Such gatherings can be rushed over a single day or weekend, on a “stone soup” basis, with the only major input being colleagues’ time. With grant support, they can be conducted over several days in a residential conference center, with participants committed to staying throughout, disciplining themselves to keep email and time for responsibilities back home to a minimum so they can focus on the subject at hand. Sometimes, participants stay even longer for collective and writing. Sometimes the organizer leads a field trip to a community or institution that is in some way related to the topic at hand; or takes the group to cultural attractions. These excursions provide still other occasions for critical interactions and reflections. In these privileged formats, meetings can be extraordinarily productive of important new work and collaborations. I attribute some of my most memorable intellectual moments to such occurrences.

John turned the colloquium format into an ethnographical adventure. Convinced that any study of the Olympics had to be grounded in the culture and political economy of the host society, he sought to immerse himself and his colleagues in those host societies. His particular ambition was to assemble an international team of scholars to study the interactions of Olympic participants with host societies and among themselves. It would be sustained over several Olympics, so that scholars could compare what occurred in very different host societies, sensitive to the transformations in the political economy of sport and the world that took place between Games. Colleagues would live together during Games, ideally with credentials to the Olympic Village, the competitions, and insider spaces, and prepared to scramble and hustle as necessary. Participating social scientists would contribute to daily planning and briefing meetings, share draft observations, and eventually publish their edited papers, while continuing to collaborate between Games. He told me excitedly about it in that airport lineup in Athens. His first such venture was only weeks away at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. It was electrifying.

My wife Phyllis Berck and I participated in the second of these ventures, undertaken to study the intercultural dynamics of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. John's co-conspirator/collaborator was the remarkable Kang Shin-Pyo, who held ambitions as grand as John's. Shin-Pyo was determined to place our Olympic studies within the rich cultural history of Korea and the social, political, and economic changes underway in Korea at the time, accelerated in many ways by the Olympics. They raised sufficient funds to enable a three-stage project—an exploratory seminar and field trip in Korea in the summer of 1987, a lengthy stay in Seoul during the Olympics in 1988, and participation in a major international conference on the Games in Seoul in 1989.

It was a tumultuous time to study the Olympics in Korea. The year 1987 began with the frightening news that Park Chong Choi, a student protester against the dictatorial military government of President Chun Doo Hwan, had died from torture in prison. Students stepped up the demonstrations, amid western calls for an international human rights boycott of the Olympics. I had agonized about the possibilities of such a boycott myself.8 In central Seoul, fighting between protesters and military police became so fierce that observers called it a “war zone.” In June, the government capitulated, freeing political prisoners and promising direct presidential elections and other long hoped-for constitutional reforms, effectively ushering in liberal democracy. But that did not end the countrywide mobilizations. Thousands of workers then went on strike for economic changes, higher wages and benefits, and the recognition of independent trade unions. Once one industry forged an agreement, another group of workers would go out on strike.

The Penny Dropped on a Picket Line

Kang Shin-Pyo told us that the Olympic spotlight had energized the democratization. We experienced those synergies firsthand on the road. When we traveled the country in August, following the path of the Olympic Torch Relay, we encountered service strikes almost everywhere we went. Our bus (there were about thirty of us, scholars, and partners from both sides of the Iron Curtain and at least a dozen different countries) arrived at several hotels blocked by picket lines. But in every case, workers stepped away from the lines to greet us and provide minimal services because we were Olympic guests. As we listened to their concerns and marched in solidarity, we learned from their (translated) speeches and slogans that they welcomed the Olympics as an opportunity to open and liberalize South Korean society. They may not have been planned, but those picket lines were an exemplary form of experiential learning. It was impossible to miss the connection between the Olympics and social mobilization, and the very special insights to be gained from exploring a society before a Games.

We had many other such lessons that summer in Korea. Tensions between the bitterly divided and heavily armed two Koreas, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in the North and Republic of Korea in the South seemed equally high, and we had to evacuate one meeting during an air raid warning to find a bomb shelter. With neither China nor the Soviet bloc recognizing the Republic of Korea, it was hard to completely dismiss questions about another Soviet-led boycott of the Games.

John was in his element. No matter what the crisis or how many times we were forced to change the itinerary, he and Shin-Pyo seemed to welcome every unexpected happening as something else to study. We visited shrines, museums, and monasteries, interviewed national cultural heroes, attended rituals and artistic performances, sampled the intricacies of Korean food, the sweet smell of garlic everywhere, all animated by the tumult across the country. No graduate seminar I ever attended had such adrenalin. Standing at the front of the bus, notebooks and pens always in hand, John and Kang decoded everything we experienced for historical tradition, hierarchy, and struggles for power. It completely changed my appreciation of Korean history and politics. No matter how much I read before I arrived, my expectations were colored by one-dimensional images from Hollywood war films and anti-imperialist rhetoric about South Korea as a docile, authoritarian client state. I came to admire Korea's distinct, proud traditions, remarkable export-led economic growth, and fierce activism. I gained new respect for South Korea's many challenges, as a small militarily occupied half-nation maneuvering within the pressures and possibilities of ideological and class conflicts and regional and superpower agendas.

The following year at the Olympics was another insightful adventure. It was a smaller, all-male group—John and Shin-Pyo, Jim Riordan, Wojciech Liponski, Miguel de Moragas Spa, Laurence Chalip, and me. We stayed together in a single apartment in Olympic Family Town (OFT), a large housing complex created for the Games. (Phyllis was in Seoul, too, but had to stay in another apartment.) OFT was a marvelous innovation of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC). It provided housing, a common dining hall, transportation to the Olympic venues and bookings for tours and cultural events for the families of Olympic participants and journalists. Under the banner of “Seoul to the World, the World to Seoul,” the SLOOC sought to give every Olympic visitor a chance to discover Korea and get to know visitors from other countries. The large dining hall, which ran the entire length of an underground parking lot, was just like the dining halls in the Athletes’ Village, a 24–7 buzz of introductions and storytelling.

Our agreement with John and Shin-Pyo was that we would track various aspects of Olympic intercultural exchange in Seoul. We had ample opportunity to do so. The project was completely in alignment with that of the SLOOC. John and Shin-Pyo had found a perfect patron in Park Seh-Jik, the president of the organizing committee. He ensured we had the credentials and introductions to attend virtually everything we wanted. We met every morning to debrief on the previous day's findings and to set out our plans for the day ahead, with John and Shin-Pyo animating the discussions. Jim Riordan watched the Soviets, Laurence Chalip the New Zealanders. I followed three different groups of Canadians—the athletes, coaches, and team officials in the Athletes’ Village, the participants in the Olympic Youth Camp elsewhere in Seoul, and the parents, spouses, and other interested spectators staying in OFT, many of whom took full advantage of the offered home visits and tours.

My observations in the Athletes’ Village confirmed John's critique. When I competed in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, the entire team stayed in the Village for about three weeks and by the Closing Ceremony, we felt that we knew almost everybody. The shift to shorter stays had begun in Montreal in 1976, where as a contributor to a play performed in the Village, I had unlimited access and spent many days there. The US, the GDR, and the Soviets all assembled their athletes away from the Village, and just moved them in and out for their events. By Seoul, this practice had been adopted by many other National Olympic Committees. The only ones who seemed to stay for the duration were athletes from the Global South. That changed slightly when Western athletes began to demand the right to stay until the Closing Ceremony so that they could enjoy the full Olympic experience, as US athletes did in 1984, and Canadian athletes following a public campaign in 1996.9 Today, very few athletes stay for the duration. On the other hand, the testimonials from the Canadians who did take up the offered opportunities to immerse themselves in Korea bear out the possibilities for a transforming new awareness that Coubertin and John called for.

It was extraordinary what we experienced, observed, and learned during those Games. Thanks to John and Shin-Pyo's grant support, we were able to reconvene the following year to present our papers to a large conference in Seoul. It also gave us opportunity to explore the use of the facilities and the aftermath of the Games one year later.10 It was an exemplary contribution to Olympic scholarship and the possibilities of intercultural communication.

In the ensuring years, the conference/road show model John pioneered to give Olympic scholars a thorough, experiential grounding in the culture and economies of host societies and enable them to study intercultural interactions at the Games inspired or contributed to several other such collective enterprises. I am most familiar with the ongoing, comprehensive research and publications of the Olympic Study Centre and the International Chair in Olympism at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB). They began with a conference and field trip to explore the post-Franco economic, cultural, linguistic, and urban renewal of Barcelona and Catalonia led by Miguel de Moragas Spa on the eve of the 1992 Olympics, in which John played a major role. It was another telling “learning moment” about the intrinsic connection between social transformation and the bidding and staging of Olympic Games. In the years since, the UAB's Centre and Chair in Olympism have engaged many more scholars from all over the world, with an outpouring of influential research reports and conference proceedings.

Another example is the critical, collective reporting by an international team of social scientists on the 2000 Olympics in Sydney for the official report of the Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG). That exercise was initiated and coordinated by Kristine Toohey of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), with the support of Richard Cashman of the University of New South Wales, and left the Centre for Olympic Studies at UTS as one of its many legacies. In addition to the IOC's Olympic Museum and Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, there are now fifty-four Olympic study centers at universities and institutes around the world. Most of them were created in the years immediately following John's Seoul project and bear his influence.

On the Trail of Thomas Hughes in Tennessee

John made one further use of the colloquium/road trip model to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1857 publication of Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. Hughes's best-seller details the experiences of a young schoolboy at Rugby School in England who learns self-respect, mental and physical courage, and compassion for others through the mentoring of his school principal, modeled on Thomas Arnold, and his various adventures, including a school yard fight and sports like cricket and rugby. The book popularized the idea of “sport for good,” the belief that participation in sports instilled the values of citizenship and social responsibility around the Western world. Republished many times, it was a staple of public libraries and given as birthday and Christmas presents and graduation prizes to adolescent boys. It has provided the core speaking points for parents, coaches, youth leaders, and school assembly speakers ever since. Pierre de Coubertin was so taken by Hughes's ideas that he made a pilgrimage to Rugby and Arnold's tomb.

Hughes was a Christian socialist intent on social reform. He served in Parliament for nine years, pushing through legislation to provide legal protections for cooperatives and supporting the legalization of trade unions. He helped establish a college for working men in London and served as its principal for ten years. He campaigned to outlaw the opium trade. But perhaps his most ambitious venture was to establish a utopian colony in the United States based on egalitarian and cooperative principles. The idea was to provide land for the younger sons of the English gentry who were unemployed and disinherited by the prevailing system of primogeniture. In its heyday, the colony at Rugby, Tennessee, boasted about 400 residents, an active cultural and political life, sports fields, and beautiful public buildings, including a well-stocked library. Hughes wrote every publisher in the US and Britain for copies of their current lists, and because of his reputation, most obliged. While the colony only lasted for about a decade, beset by conflicts and typhoid, the buildings still survive.

So, John took us to Rugby, Tennessee, during a week-long, international colloquium to study the impact of Tom Brown's Schooldays around the world. We began in Chicago with formal presentations, then flew back in time to rural Rugby to think about Tom Brown within the full trajectory of Hughes's remarkable life. We met in the beautifully preserved Thomas Hughes Library, built in 1882, where every book dated from before 1885, and conversed while strolling around the historic site. The collection of articles that resulted was much richer for the experience.11 As a colloquium impresario and team leader, I know of none better than John.

Intercultural Education and the Beijing Winter Olympics

Coubertin's ambition for intercultural education has lost even more ground in recent years, as the imperatives of high performance and globalizing capitalism intensify. Although the IOC has secured sites for the next two Winter Olympic and three Summer Olympic Games, it continues to struggle with costs, logistics, human rights, and equity. I am convinced that former IOC president Jacques Rogge initiated the Olympic Youth Games because he had given up on the adult Olympics as a place where genuine intercultural exchange could happen. In Beijing in 2008, athletes were told “shut up or go home.” At the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Vancouver/Whistler, the emphasis was on “Own the Podium,” with special advantages for Canadians so that they could win the most gold medals, and the infrastructural legacy for the region. The ceremonies highlighted Canadian nationalism. Except for two Pride Houses, which welcomed and even offered refugee status to LGBTQ athletes and visitors from other countries, very little attention was paid to the intercultural responsibilities of hosting the world. More recent games have been little better. Given the costs and challenges of staging them, it is understandable that public debates focus on burdens and opportunities, but the Olympic spirit should be more than “all about us.” Tokyo 2020 has proven another blow. While it was a health necessity to prohibit intermingling among participants and citizens, I worry that it has encouraged those who would convert the Games to “made for television,” with competitions held in the best facilities wherever they happen to be, with no single “host” city, and journalists and commentators covering them remotely. While the restrictions and disappointments in Tokyo reignited the appetite for genuine intercultural exchange among many athletes and Olympic officials, and Paris promises to take its cultural/intercultural obligations seriously in 2024, there's not a moment to waste.

The need to reinvent and re-energize the intercultural purpose of the Games is particularly urgent as Olympic and Paralympic communities around the world wrestle with the moral dilemma of competing in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. More and more evidence documents the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities in Xinjiang, while the Chinese intensify the suppression of democratic rights in Hong Kong and step up their military overflights of Taiwan. Like many people, John is horrified by the genocide in Xinjiang and angry with the IOC for its silence. In a recent issue of this journal, he wrote: “If the present course of things continues through Beijing 2022, the net result at the deepest aggregate level will be that the feelings of human solidarity generated will be persistently shadowed and compromised by fears and feelings of complicity in cultural genocide (italics in original).”12 Human rights groups around the world are calling for an international boycott of the Beijing Games.

In response, athletes, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) are invoking the possibilities of intercultural education and exchange as a reason for attending the Games. In a joint statement, the CEOs of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees wrote:

The Olympic and Paralympic movements are unique means for the promotion of peace and development, for uniting rather than dividing. Paralympic sport specifically showcases the achievements of athletes with disabilities to a global audience. The “Olympic Truce” stands as a remarkable achievement considering what divides the world.

Faced with only two options—go or don't go—our approach is to be present and join the conversation. We believe we can amplify voices and use people-to-people connections to effect change, regardless of how aspirational or difficult that might seem at times.13

I support this strategy, and only hope that it is genuine, and will stimulate an intentional effort among the Olympic and Paralympic movements to encourage and enable intercultural education and exchange in the way Coubertin and MacAloon have long recommended. I agree that an Olympic boycott of the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing is the not best way to express one's condemnation.

First, it is highly improbable that the IOC, International Paralympic Committee (IPC), or any major NOC, NPC, or International Federation (IF) will voluntarily boycott Beijing, so that any boycott campaign is bound to fail. Ever since the beginning of the Coubertin cycle of Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, there have been regular calls or threats of boycotts and the IOC has stood up to every one of them, determined that the Games will go ahead. That is not likely to change for Beijing. The IOC still appoints the majority of its members, an undemocratic process that ironically has enabled it to stand up to the strongest governments. In 1980, in the face of intense pressure from US president Jimmy Carter to cancel or move the Moscow Olympics, it voted unanimously to go ahead.14 While sixty-five NOCs stayed away from those Games, pressured by their governments to support the Carter-initiated boycott, the US has nowhere near the same political clout today. The lesson most NOCs drew from the 1980 experience was that boycotts have little impact upon state policy, yet they do significant damage to sports. I know many athletes who share the concerns about human rights in China, but they, too, see little benefit from a sports boycott. They deeply resent being asked to give up opportunities which in many cases are once in a lifetime while other sectors pursue business as usual with China.

Secondly, although the IOC is moving closer to instituting a regime of human rights for the Games, it will not be in place until Paris in 2024 and even then, it will not apply to the host country's overall human rights record. It will be strictly limited to the conditions for staging the Games, such as the rights of workers and citizens during Olympic construction and the operation of the Games. That is in accord with the IOC's long history of non-intervention in the affairs of member and host countries. To include the entire world in its Games, to realize a “big tent,” it has always felt that it has to pursue a “low threshold.” But the tent is now full, and as I have long argued, it's time the IOC raised the threshold. As the world moves away from the principle of non-intervention towards some sort of commitment to the “right to protect,” it will be essential for the IOC and IPC to impose United Nations standards for human rights upon NOCs, NPCs, IFs, and host governments.15 But that will be a long march. Beijing already has a contract, signed before the plight of the Uyghurs became known, and at the time of writing, the opening ceremony is four months away. We have to recognize what we can effect under limited circumstances.

To hold its head high in Beijing, the IOC must enlarge the political space at the Games for full, frank, and open discussion among participants, including talk about Chinese and other human rights abuses, and how the world of Olympic sports should respond. That will require it to resurrect the old idea that during an Olympic or Winter Olympic Games, the venues are Olympic precincts, subject to Olympic values and rules, not those of the host nation. It will also require the IOC to completely abolish Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter so that athletes and others can fully express themselves without fear of discipline, and to guarantee that the Chinese government will refrain from reprisals. Rather than forcing everyone to stay silent about issues most on their minds, the IOC should enable such discussions to occur on a respectful basis. We are already well down this road. With the full support of the Athletes’ Commission and many but not all NOC athlete advisory bodies, the IOC significantly relaxed Rule 50 this year to allow for free expression in the Athletes’ Village, in meetings and media conferences, on social media, and at the beginning of competitions. Nevertheless, it maintained the prohibitions against “demonstrations of political, religious or racial propaganda” on the field of play and during opening, closing and victory ceremonies. While the COVID-necessitated restrictions limited what athletes could do or say in Tokyo, several athletes made statements of some kind. Before the Games even began, South Korean athletes hung banners outside their apartments in the Village decrying a sixteenth-century war with Japan and the use of Japan's rising sun flag, which has long been associated with Japanese military aggression, but were persuaded to take them down in exchange for a promise that the hurtful rising sun flag would be barred from Olympic venues. Several soccer teams and referees knelt before their games to protest racism. Two Chinese gold medal cyclists wore buttons with depictions of Mao Zedong. Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado ended her floor routine by taking a knee and raising a fist in support of equal rights. In the one gesture from the podium that was read as a violation of the revised rule—US shot putter Raven Saunders's crossed arm salute in solidarity with “all oppressed people”—the IOC decided not to discipline her.16 In my view, none of the actions taken were inappropriate or jeopardized the Games. On the contrary, they showed that a mature Olympic Movement can live with expressions of political aspiration and criticism. Full freedom of speech, a basic human right, requires that the remaining restrictions be removed.

But simply creating a space for expression is not enough. Inspired by John, I also believe that the IOC should revitalize its commitment to intentional intercultural exchange for these Games. While there will be limited opportunity for intermingling and people-to-people exchange in the COVID-required restrictions announced by the Beijing Organizing Committee and the IOC,17 the IOC and NOCs should nonetheless make an effort to prepare athletes, coaches, delegation leaders, and journalists for the China they will be visiting. Since NOCs have evoked the arguments for learning through intercultural exchange in their replies to the proposed boycott, they should reinvest in the appropriate programs.

These are difficult times for the world, on so many fronts, and xenophobia and hatred of the “other” are on the rise. Fears grow about a new Cold War with China, with a frightening escalation of anti-Asian hate crimes in diaspora countries. There are concerns about other forms of racism, including police violence against Blacks in the United States and genocidal actions against Indigenous people in most Western countries. If the historic mission of the Olympic Movement has been to intervene in such moments, and through the auspices of shared sport and culture, lower the temperature, the Beijing Winter Olympics present just such an opportunity.

As John argued in his 1986 challenge address, “Our task is not to eliminate (political and cultural) differences, but to make the world safer for them.” I know from my experience in China that most people are willing to listen to Westerners, including those of us who advocate athletes’ rights, gender equity, and human rights. They usually are quick to put forward another perspective on human rights and democracy, which is fascinating to hear, but they listen, and they engage in wide-ranging dialogue. The IOC should take the lead in encouraging such dialogue in Beijing. If it were me, I would match athletes and coaches from different countries in coffee dates, convene open meetings in the Village, even within the “closed loop management system” announced for the Games.

In the years ahead, as the world becomes safe once again for in-person visiting, the IOC should get the advice of the Athletes’ Commission, athlete advisory councils, those engaged in Olympic education, and colleagues from the best universities. We no longer have to hope that such exchange occurs by osmosis. We have several decades of social science research and practice on intentional experiential education to rely on.

John has always insisted that the Olympic Movement take its principles seriously and intentionally commit to intercultural education. It would be a tribute to his vision to do this in Beijing and the years ahead.



Professor Emeritus Bruce Kidd, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, University of Toronto. He served as the chair of the Olympic Academy of Canada from 1983 to 1993.


For an example of our scholarly exchanges, see Bruce Kidd, “How Do We Find Our Voices in the New World Order? A Commentary on Americanization,” Sociology of Sport Journal 8, no. 2 (1991): 178–84; and John MacAloon, “The Ethnographic Imperative in Comparative Olympic Research,” Sociology of Sport Journal 9, no. 1 (1992): 104–30.


Bruce Kidd, A Runner's Journey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2021).


Bruce Kidd, “The Philosophy of Excellence: Olympic Performance, Class Power and the State,” in Philosophy of Sport and Physical Activity, ed. Pasquale J. Galasso (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 1988), 11–31.


John J. MacAloon, Intercultural Education and Olympic Sport (Montreal: Canadian Olympic Association, 1986), 10, 22.


MacAloon, Intercultural Education and Olympic Sport, 11–12.


Bruce Kidd, “‘Seoul to the World, the World to Seoul’ . . . and Ben Johnson: Canada at the 1988 Olympics,” in Toward One World Beyond All Barriers, ed. Koh Byong-Ik (Seoul: Poong Nam, 1990), 1:434–54.


Bruce Kidd, “Olympic Powderkeg,” Canadian Dimension 21, no. 1 (1987): 22–23.


Bruce Kidd, “Psychological Aspects of the Experiences of Athletes in the Olympic Villages: Issues and Challenges,” Sport in Society 16, no. 4 (2013): 482–90.


Koh Byong Ik, ed., Toward One World Beyond All Barriers: The Seoul Olympiad Anniversary Conference, 3 vols. (Seoul: Seoul Olympic Sports Promotion Foundation, 1990).


John J. MacAloon, ed., Muscular Christianity in the Colonial and Post-Colonial World (London: Routledge, 2009).


John MacAloon, “Infection Is One Thing, Mortality Another: The Olympic Movement In Extremis,” Journal of Olympic Studies 2, no. 1 (2021): 1–14.


David Shoemaker and Karen O'Neil, “Boycott Is Not the Answer,” Globe and Mail, February 4, 2021, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/sports/olympics/article-beijing-2022-a-boycott-is-not-the-answer/.


Bruce Kidd, “Boycotting the Next Olympics in Beijing Will Hurt Athletes: Here's a Better Idea,” The Conversation, August 5, 2021, https://theconversation.com/boycotting-the-next-olympics-in-beijing-will-hurt-athletes-heres-a-better-idea-16545.


Bruce Kidd, “The Olympic and Paralympic Games and Human Rights,” in Routledge Handbook on the Olympic and Paralympic Games, ed. Dikaia Chatziefstathiou, Borja Garcia, and Benoit Séguin (London: Routledge, 2020), 334–44.


David Wharton, “Despite the IOC's Fears, the Tokyo Olympics Didn't Become the Protest Games,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/story/2021-08-07/ioc-fears-tokyo-olympics-athletes-protests.


IOC, “Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022—Updates on Spectators, Vaccination and COVID-19 Countermeasures,” Olympics.com, September 29, 2021, https://olympics.com/ioc/news/olympic-and-paralympic-winter-games-beijing-2022-updates-on-spectators-vaccination-and-covid-19-countermeasures.