The ideas that animate the Olympic movement strongly resonate with anyone in love with the American experiment.
The Olympics’ aspirational mission could pass for a narrative describing Norman Rockwell’s America: “blending sport with culture and education … to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort [and] the education value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
However, as in life, the reality of the Olympics often does not align with stated ideals. The organization, host cities, coaches and athletes all from time to time have borne the burden of corruption, doping, cheating, harassment and many other behaviors hostile to the notion of “good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Despite unworthy hosts – such as Hitler’s Germany in 1936 and Communist China in 2008 – the United States refused to participate in the Games only once, in 1980.
1980 was a pivotal year for US participation in the Olympics. That glorious band of college kids with sticks performed the Lake Placid “miracle on ice,” uplifting a nation and the free world during a time of economic malaise and Cold War uncertainty. The Moscow summer games that followed coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, prompting the Carter administration to issue the first ever US call to boycott an Olympics. The Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the following summer games in Los Angeles.
Many have questioned the efficacy of Olympic boycotts since the superpower exchange of the early 1980s. Some pointed to the historic image of Jesse Owens, standing as a personal monument to human dignity and achievement in the heart of Nazi Germany. Others point to the normative effect hosting an Olympics had on South Korea as it transitioned from martial law to democracy. After all, could there have been more reason to boycott Moscow in 1980 than there was to boycott Berlin in 1936? Moreover, wouldn’t the normative effect of the global media spotlight serve to improve conditions in China as they did in South Korea? These were, in fact, arguments made in favor of participation in the 2008 summer games in Beijing.
Much has changed in China and the world since 2008 that should reasonably call into question the morality and efficacy of the Olympic Committee proceeding with next year’s winter games as planned. First and foremost are questions of health, economics, fairness, and human rights.
The COVID-19 outbreak indisputably originated in China and spread worldwide, at great cost to the economic and social fabric of most countries. In addition to the Chinese government’s lack of transparency and accountability, the outbreak delayed and minimized the summer Olympics now to be hosted by Japan this July and August. Japan paid a heavy price, in terms of added costs and lost revenues, solely due to Beijing’s irresponsibility. It hardly seems consistent with the Olympics’ spirit of fair play to impose sacrifice on Japan while allowing China to profit, handsomely. Beyond the question of fairness and reward, who in their right mind would want to send their most prized athletes to a country responsible for unleashing, minimizing and politicizing a highly infectious disease not that long ago? Wouldn’t Japan be a more deserving and capable host for the winter games?
Then there are the not so small issues of Uyghur genocide, the destruction of dissent in Hong Kong and threats against democratic Taiwan. These are not issues relegated to history or theory. These are real developments unfolding right now.
Unlike 1936 Germany, there is broad-based evidence today of systemic persecution of ethnic and religious minorities in China, sufficient for the US State Department to designate Chinese Communist treatment of Muslim Uyghurs as genocide. “The Chinese government has breached every single article of the UN genocide convention in its treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and bears responsibility for committing genocide,” The Guardian reported.
In addition to the travesty in China’s northwest, the world witnessed and global media compellingly recorded Beijing’s comprehensive assault on rule of law, dissent and formerly democratic processes in Hong Kong. Legislators, barristers, students, media executives and journalists are on trial, in jail or otherwise under intense personal and professional attack in what used to be one of the freest and most prosperous outposts in Asia. While the defeat of Hong Kong is not yet complete, Chinese nationalists already are actively amping up pressure on democratic Taiwan to submit to Beijing’s will.
If the International Olympic Committee will not act responsibly and move the 2022 Winter Games from Beijing, how can American leaders justify standing by a host engaging in genocide, crushing the rule of law and threatening to expand authoritarianism?