Between the surge of Omicron cases and political tensions, uncertainty surrounded the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which kicked off this week. The Games faced a collective diplomatic boycott from the U.S., U.K., Canadian, and Australian governments over human rights abuses in China.
In addition, a Research Co. poll has revealed that 59% of Canadian respondents said that Canada should boycott this year’s Winter Olympics, and 47% said they would not be watching the event.
However, the ongoing Games are far from being the only controversial Olympics in history. As the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Dick Pound is not new to Olympic polemics. He believes that people should not refrain from tuning in the sporting event on political grounds.
“This is not a political exercise, this is a sport exercise,” said Dick Pound, a Canadian lawyer, swimming champion, and senior member of the IOC. “We should watch the games and support our athletes. We’ve got a big team that has worked under difficult circumstances and many uncertainties, and they deserve Canadian support.”
Pound made his Olympic debut as a young athlete when he joined the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was the only Canadian to reach the finals in a swimming event, finishing sixth in the 100-meter freestyle and fourth with the 4 × 100 m relay team.
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“You never forget your first Olympics,” he said. “It was a huge experience, and one of the reasons I’ve stayed involved in helping in sport is to help others have that kind of fun in sport.”
Pound participated in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, where he won one gold, two silver, and one bronze medal, setting a new record in the 110-yard freestyle.
Balancing an excellent academic career with being a world-class athlete, he subsequently graduated from McGill University with degrees in Commerce and Law, becoming a chartered accountant in 1964 and lawyer in 1968. He went on to practice tax law as a partner in the law firm of Stikeman Elliott LLP in Montreal.
After retiring from competitive swimming, Pound joined the Canadian Olympic Committee as the secretary-general before becoming president of the organization from 1977 to 1982.
He was co-opted as a member of the IOC in 1978, where he was responsible for the worldwide television and sponsorship deals that revolutionized the Olympic movement, turning the IOC into a multi-hundreds of millions-dollar business. He also gained the reputation as a spokesperson for ethics in sports, openly criticizing corruption within the organization, and enforcing the prohibition of drugs in sports by serving as the first president of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Recalling his days as a young athlete, Pound describes the late ‘70s and ‘80s as an era “when boycotts were fashionable.” From the African boycott of the 1976 Montreal Games to the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the retaliatory Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the Canadian IOC representative dealt with several high-profile issues. According to him, the political boycotts were not as helpful in advancing the political causes as they were detrimental to the competing athletes.
“One of the lessons that were learned was that an Olympic boycott is not effective in bringing about state conduct change,” told Pound. “The Soviets stayed in Afghanistan for 10 years after the boycott, and all that happened was that governments threw their own Olympic athletes under the bus.”
“You will find the minute the Games start, a lot of this collateral concern will disappear, as happened in Tokyo [in 2021],” he added.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were also a cause for apprehension amid the coronavirus outbreak, and after being postponed to 2021, uncertainty persisted on whether the event should – or could – take place.
“Something like 70% of Japanese people were against proceeding with the Games, but as soon as they started, that needle started to switch,” said Pound. “By the end, the majority were in favor and proud of having hosted them.”
Stephanie Ricci contributed to this story.