As the United States debates whether and how to oppose Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and U.S. National Olympic Committee have taken a unified stand, insisting that a boycott will “negatively impact athletes” while “not effectively addressing global issues.” Although valid, these points hardly justify competing in Beijing. Indeed, pitting athletes’ professional development against China’s atrocities is callous and shortsighted, continuing the modern Olympic movement’s tradition of placing sport before all else. Ultimately, it is a betrayal of the Olympic dream.
Despite the Olympic committees’ protestations, the Games are indeed used to burnish the host country’s image. For a government such as the People’s Republic of China – one engaged in genocide against indigenous East Turkestani peoples and other forms of malign activity – the Olympics offers a rare opportunity to improve its reputation. Moreover, such governments’ lack of moral limits all but ensure an extensive campaign to appropriate the Olympic Games for their own ends. Should Olympians stand by as Beijing uses their talents to aid its “ethnic assimilation”?
Britannica.com suggests that the Olympic ideal “emerged from a focus on the liberal democratic and character-building properties of school sport.” As the Olympic Charter states:
Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles. … The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.
This is a grand vision, but in practice the Olympic movement has in the past abandoned its ideals in pursuit of its interests. This moral weakness was most apparent in the 1936 Olympic Games. At the time, IOC president Henri de Baillet-Latour and U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage fought for the Games to continue in Berlin in the face of strong international protest against the Nazi regime. The only IOC member to oppose this Olympiad was the American Ernest Lee Jahncke. For his principled opposition to Hitler, Jahncke became the first and for many years only member to be removed from the IOC.
Even the modern Olympic movement’s celebrated founder, Pierre de Coubertin, betrayed his own vision by commending the Nazi Olympics. Although he claimed that the Games “are global. All people must be allowed in, without debate,” the games he endorsed actively excluded Jews, later to be slaughtered at the hands of the Hitler regime. Despite the IOC’s attempt to rehabilitate de Coubertin’s image, it cannot hide this corrupt bargain. At the time, de Coubertin was an elderly pauper who had no way of understanding the horrors of totalitarianism. He endorsed Hitler’s Olympics in order to meet his pressing financial obligations. We are left without excuse.
Today’s IOC is continuing this tradition of silence, acting as if the PRC were a normal state. U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesman Jon Mason stated that the committee opposes boycotts “because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues.” IOC President Thomas Bach has dismissed the idea that “the IOC can solve or even address issues for which the U.N. Security Council, G-7 and G-20 has no solution.”
But no one is asking them to solve the problem, only to notice it and do no more than they are able. Remaining silent aids the abuser so standing still is not an option. The world at large cannot expect the IOC to address every issue, but the issue of genocide is too great to ignore.
U.S. Senator Mitt Romney does make a strong case for allowing athletes to compete while placing an “economic and diplomatic boycott” on Beijing’s Games. And James Millward very helpfully calls for pressure on the 2022 sponsors. Indeed, the only subjects Beijing should find open for discussion around the world are its human rights record and how it will dismantle its apparatus of oppression in the most expeditious way possible.
In 1936, Hitler had only begun to test the limits of inhumanity. Today in 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been operating his system of surveillance and concentration camps for several years, processing human victims by the millions while expanding this model throughout the PRC. Knowing what we know now, would U.S. Olympians be at peace competing once again in the 1936 Berlin Games? If the answer is “no,” then we should not compete in Beijing in 2022.
Increasingly the democratic world must protect itself against authoritarian attacks, including the development of parallel institutions whenever the international standard becomes an authoritarian mockery (as with the U.N. Human Rights Council). Our first effort should be to move the Games out of China. That failing, instead of participating, let democratic and like-minded nations sanction a parallel competition, putting a deeply deserved asterisk on any “Beijing Olympics.”
With the spike in prejudice and racist violence against people of Chinese and more broadly Asian and Pacific islands heritage over the past year, we must be clear that this opposition is solely directed at the oppressive government of the People’s Republic, not at people of any particular heritage. The PRC does not govern by the consent of its people and has no claim to represent Chinese people around the world. Racial hatred is itself an absolute evil that can contribute to genocide. Indeed it makes the democratic world less able to resist Beijing’s advances.
To be fair, many humanitarian movements could claim their aims ought to pre-empt sporting events. But genocide is the ultimate crime. The Olympic Committee faces a choice: to elevate its stature by upholding its ideals or to reduce its moral authority for generations.
But some events are out of our hands. If we must compete in Beijing, then let the world’s athletes carry with them a clear sign of solidarity with the victims of Xi’s genocide and other crimes. Let them display this sign prominently and frequently. As de Coubertin said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” This is fighting the good fight and it will be remembered. Let our conscience be at peace today so we can be ready to compete and triumph tomorrow.