The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are starting; Americans who care about human rights or geopolitics should join me in skipping them.
The 1936 Berlin Olympic Games live in infamy as a terrible example of how a genocidal authoritarian regime can use international media and sport to serve as propagandists for its evil cause. Despite our appropriate modern appraisal of the Nazi Olympics, the Games were a clear success at the time and greatly legitimized the Hitler regime in the eyes of the wider world. Newspapers around the world largely covered the events as though they occurred in a free nation, only occasionally touching on authoritarian Nazi policies in between race results and medal tables. Some papers even promoted the ceremonial aspects of the Games – obvious and direct Nazi propaganda – with wide-eyed admiration. There were those brave few who pushed boycotts of the Berlin Games for the very abuses we see today as blatantly immoral, but their pleas mostly fell on deaf ears. We must not make that same mistake again.
The Winter Olympics in Beijing are set to be a redux of the 1936 version, complete with the massive human rights abuses, weakness of the international community, and media embrace of authoritarian propaganda. Just like Hitler’s regime, China has racked up an impressive record of repression, one without parallel in the current day (although Russia has competed for that title both times). The most egregious crime currently being committed by the Chinese Communist Party is the ongoing genocide of the Uighurs, a minority ethnic & religious group living primarily in the far western region of Xinjiang. This has been public knowledge for years – no matter how much the regime in Beijing denies it – and is recognized as genocide by several Western countries, including the United States. Besides this horrific crime against humanity, the Chinese government has committed several other major atrocities and acts of repression in the past decade. The hardcore crackdown on Hong Kong – one which violated an international treaty with the United Kingdom, no less – has led to deaths, disappearances, and a massive violation of human freedoms promised to the people of the former British possession. The repression has not only focused on the present and future of Hong Kong, but even on its past; the Chinese government has removed statues commemorating the martyrs of the Tiananmen Square massacre from the city so as to cement its totalitarian control. China’s increasing aggression towards the free and independent nation of Taiwan has been chronicled widely, including on this site. Beijing’s belligerence towards Taipei and any nation which dares defy Chinese territorial irrendentism speaks to the global reach of China’s coercive diplomacy. As has been the case since the CCP’s forced annexation in 1950, Tibet is the site of a continuing program of cultural subjugation, one which has accelerated under the leadership of Xi Jinping. All of these outrages have been mainly localized to Asia, allowing some cynics in the West to write them off as rumors or ‘just not that big a deal‘. If that’s the case, why not think about the last 2 plague years that are – in the best case scenario – indirectly the fault of the Chinese government which lied for months about the virus, hampering global response efforts. In a far worse scenario, one which is backed by some significant evidence, the pandemic leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, directly due to either CCP negligence or malice. Olympic athletes themselves are not immune from Chinese interference or abuse; they are constantly listened to through a CCP spyware app, subject to rigid speech and behavior controls, and invasive Covid monitoring. Between the pandemic, the Uighur genocide, and the other cruelties to athletes and others mentioned above, China should absolutely not be rewarded by the world with Olympic host duty.
The disgrace that is happening in Beijing under the auspices of the Olympics could have and should have been prevented at several points in the chain. First, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should never have awarded China with the Olympic Games in the first place. The regime’s monstrous and totalitarian behavior has been manifest for decades now, and its recent ramp-up under Chairman Xi is common knowledge. There is no excuse for the IOC to ignore this behavior … but for the fact that it is an irreparably corrupt organization that aggressively courts authoritarian leaders for its own monetary benefit. The IOC has repeatedly parroted Chinese denials of its abuses, even participating in some of the whitewashing directly, as was the case with the disappeared tennis star Peng Shuai. Chinese institutional capture of international bodies is commonplace – just look at the World Health Organization – and the IOC is no outlier. If the spineless and venal IOC could never be relied on to stand for supposed Olympic principle and refuse to allow authoritarians like China to host the Games, who should have stepped in? The answer to that question is easy: the United States of America.
As was the case with respect to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the United States should have fully boycotted the Beijing Games. In that instance, the US government under President Jimmy Carter (the rare time I’ll sing the man’s praises) did the right thing and refused to send any athletes to the Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The government was serious about the boycott, threatening American athletes who dared defy it with losing their passports. If the Soviet war on Afghanistan was bad enough to justify a boycott – and it was – then the deliberate genocide of Muslim Uighurs must qualify for such treatment. But what about the contention that an enforced boycott would be unfair to the American athletes who trained their entire lives for an Olympic opportunity? This is one of the rare cases in which I contend that individual concerns cannot top the state’s interest in foreign policy formation. The United States needs to be able to conduct foreign policy without a veto coming from a small group of citizens, and that is what Olympic athletes are. Should we leave those athletes high and dry in the event of a boycott? Absolutely not. American Olympians who are making such a serious sacrifice on behalf of their nation should be compensated accordingly. Congress could easily authorize a million dollar (or more) payment to each qualifying athlete without even making a drop in the bucket of annual appropriations. Besides pecuniary compensation, athletes should have the chance to compete at a similarly high level at an alternative competition hosted here in the US. We should have invited any other democratic nations to boycott Beijing and instead compete in a free nation without fear of censorship or abuse. As the Winter Olympics are historically dominated by fewer (and freer) nations than are the Summer, kneecapping the Beijing Games would be possible – a feat that was not achieved in 1980, despite the boycott. Alas, neither Biden nor his predecessor chose this path. The best they could do was a diplomatic boycott, which is about the most meaningless slap on the wrist imaginable.
So what, in the end, can be done about this abhorrent perversion of the Olympic spirit? Given the comprehensive institutional failure both domestically and internationally, the ball lies in our court as private individuals and communities. To take this in a personal direction for a moment: I love the Winter Olympics and have ever since I was a child. Nothing in the Summer Games spoke to me like hockey, speed skating, alpine skiing, snowboard halfpipe, and even curling did; maybe that’s my latent Canadian heritage speaking, but I was always captivated by the spectacle which occurred like clockwork every fourth February. I was entranced by Winter Olympic history, especially the Cold War Olympic rivalry that culminated with the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. All of this is to say that I watch the Winter Olympics with great excitement every time around. Well, nearly every time around. Because I’m not watching a minute of the Beijing Genocide Games in 2022. We may not be able to stop the US from participating in a whitewashing of ethnocide, but we sure as hell can refuse to support or countenance it. We can choose not to watch, and therefore hit the IOC, its sponsors, and the media covering the Games where it hurts – their wallets. A large-scale public boycott campaign could show the government that punitive anti-CCP measures are popular and give them a serious example of people power. So, I ask you to join me this year in taking a stand against totalitarian repression and for liberty by choosing not to watch this disgrace to the Olympic name. Rarely is doing the right, just, and moral thing as easy as changing the channel.