The Olympics are experiencing an existential crisis. The coronavirus has knocked back the Tokyo Games a full year. There’s an upsurge of athlete activism among Olympians who view the International Olympic Committee’s rule prohibiting political dissent at the Games as out of step with the times. Fewer cities are competing to host future Games, in part thanks to activist movements that keep popping up in potential host cities to challenge the Olympic machine.
IOC President Thomas Bach acknowledged the strain during his opening speech at recent IOC meetings where he lamented “the growing misuse of sport for political purposes as one of our biggest challenges.” He also raised the specter of an Olympic boycott, with the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics the obvious subtext. “Boycotts and discrimination because of political background or nationality are once again a real danger,” he said.
In the United States, China has become an all-purpose, bipartisan political punching bag. In a recent speech on China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to test-drive material for a new-wave axis of evil. “The free world must triumph over this new tyranny,” he stated. Somewhat nonsensically, Pompeo added, “Securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time.” Meanwhile, Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden attacked China in a recent ad as if he were trying to outflank Trump from the right. Prior to that, the US Congressional Executive Commission on China, led by two Republicans, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Christopher Smith of New Jersey, wrote a letter to Bach demanding that the IOC “reassign the location of the 2022 Winter Olympics.” A visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times demanding a boycott of Beijing. In Canada, a columnist at the National Post demanded the same.
Much of this is political posturing. But beneath the layers of self-serving puffery lurks a grim truth: The Chinese government’s treatment of the ethnic Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang Province and its brutal crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong clash mightily with the principles enshrined in the Olympic Charter. Trump, of course, essentially green-lighted the building of Uighur camps in conversation with Xi Jinping for fear of derailing their trade deal, which highlights the United States’ hypocrisy on this issue. But it’s impossible to square China’s actions with the “fundamental principle of Olympism,” to support “the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Olympic sponsor Nike, a company that has placed itself at the heart of the “woke capitalism” being embraced in US sports, used Uighur forced labor to make its shoes. Its only reaction in the face of this horror has been to say that it is “conducting ongoing diligence with our suppliers in China to identify and assess potential risks related to employment of Uighur or other ethnic minorities.”
Yes, the dystopic repression in China should disqualify the country from hosting the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But all Olympic hosts, including the United States, which is slated to host the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles, should receive the same scrutiny.
The IOC is hamstrung by its own selective ethics. After all, it handed the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing after receiving assurance from China that hosting would spur improvements on the human rights front. To state the obvious, that didn’t happen. As Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said, “The 2008 Beijing Games have put an end—once and for all—to the notion that these Olympics are a ‘force for good.’” She added, “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses, leading to massive forced evictions, a surge in the arrest, detention, and harassment of critics, repeated violations of media freedom, and increased political repression.” And yet, in 2015, the IOC went ahead and chose Beijing to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, cramming this grim history down the memory hole.
There can be no Olympics, no celebration of China, as long as the Uighur Muslim population is being sent to their deaths. Georgetown University Professor James Millward has convincingly argued that China’s treatment of its Uighur population meets the United Nations definition of genocide. As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch said, “The 2008 Olympics were already legendary for human rights abuses. The current situation is leagues worse.”
Confronted with this mountain of evidence, the IOC’s response has been weak-kneed at best, acting like nothing is amiss. Bach insists his hands are tied. The IOC, he argued, “has not the mandate nor the authority to solve the human rights problems” in China. These are “political issues” that the IOC lacks the remit to address, he said. This is a jaw-dropping abdication of responsibility, an extraordinary failure of leadership.
We need to stand with political resistance in China, and if that resistance includes calls to boycott the 2022 Games, then we should support them. Meanwhile, activists standing up for Black lives across the United States are being repressed by local, state, and federal police forces. In Portland, activists are teargassed and attacked with impact munitions. The repression has injured numerous protesters as, ironically, they protest police brutality. And in Los Angeles, which is set to hold the 2028 Olympics, homelessness is a humanitarian crisis in plain sight, and one that the mayor there is failing to properly address.
The fact of the matter is that we should carefully examine the political aims and motivations of those calling for a boycott of Beijing 2022. We should scrutinize the demands for such a boycott and the kind of solidarity being offered. Most critically, we must always link whatever complaints there are to be made about China’s human rights record to the truth that it’s the Olympics and the IOC through their own actions that demand a boycott.