A Five-Ring Circus in China: The Proposed Boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics
A lot of people are angry with China these days and for good reason. The Chinese government is repressing democracy and self-rule in Hong Kong. According to several international observers, it is committing genocide against the Uighur minority. Despite a lot of official Communist Party propaganda to the contrary, China mishandled the COVID-19 outbreak, which led to a much higher death toll than if the regime been honest about the virus from the start. There is also China’s repressive rule in Tibet, increasing military activity vis-a-vis Taiwan, and grandiose claims of authority over the South China Sea. As a result, more than 180 organizations and legislators in the United States, Canada, and Australia have called for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics currently scheduled to be held in Beijing. A boycott might feel good, but it’s still a bad idea that will fail. It will accomplish nothing and might very well embarrass those who try to implement it.
In the grand scheme of things, there’s no question that these issues around China’s behavior are far more important than a series of athletic competitions wrapped in the garb of ancient Greece. Former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley connected these matters when calling for a boycott. “We must boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in China,” she declared in a tweet. “It would be a terrible loss for our athletes, but that must be weighed against the genocide occurring in China and the prospect that empowering China will lead to even greater horrors down the road.
She is not alone in linking the issues. Against this background of legislators introducing legislation to prohibit athletes from attending or calling on their governments to act, the political risk advisory firm, Eurasia Group, has predicted that there is a 60 percent probability of some form of political action against the Winter Games.
There are several problems with a boycott. The first is that it simply will not work. There are many things that motivate the actions of nation-states — military power, trade, finance, and the like — but international sport is not one of them. There is no way that a boycott of the Winter Olympics will change China’s behavior, no matter how much prestige the Chinese Communist Party attaches to this gathering. Other considerations are far more important to the Chinese. The big problem they have with what is termed the “century of national humiliation” that took place in the 1800s is foreign intervention in and exploitation of China. There is no way the Communist Party is going to tolerate foreign involvement under the guise of liberal concern about the issue of human rights in what it sees as internal matters, even if the quality of its Olympic party is damaged.
Given those facts, the only people meaningfully affected by an Olympics boycott will be the athletes who are prohibited from competing. To be sure, the International Olympic Committee was politically tone-deaf when it gave the games to Beijing. With that point made, arguments about the ethics and morality of competing in a repressive nation sound cheap, easy, and hollow when the people making those arguments are expecting others to sacrifice. Mikaela Shiffrin, a skier who won gold medals at the Sochi and Pyeongchang Games, told CNN, “You certainly don’t want to be put in the position of having to choose between human rights as morality versus being able to do your job, which on the other hand can bring light to some issues or can actually bring hope to the world at a very difficult time.”
She is not the first person to feel this moral dilemma. Sam Balter was a member of the U.S. Olympic basketball team that won the gold medal in Berlin in 1936. In 1980, he told a newspaper reporter, “I spent a lot of time soul searching, looking for an answer. Some told me it was important to compete and show a Jew could win. Others said it was immoral to attend an Olympics in Germany. Even now after 50 years, I’m not sure I made the right decision.”
A second factor working against a boycott is that national Olympic committees, for the most part, are private organizations that are separate from their national governments. Their sole purpose is to field a team every four years. Expecting these private organizations to perform the work of a government — such as, in this case, communicating disapproval of another government’s actions — is unrealistic and might be a tacit admission that diplomats, statesmen, and strategists are in weak positions and have no better options. For their part, most Olympians believe that they are a positive force in world affairs, bringing the world together every four years to direct their competitive energies into peaceful, athletic contests. The games, along with the accompanying arts and cultural displays and festivals, bring about some measure of understanding. These ideas might be more aspirational in nature than real but asking national Olympic committees to boycott an Olympiad is asking them to renounce their very purpose for existing.
When the Carter administration organized a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, it was a popular idea. The Cold War was heating up again, and Americans were tired of watching the East Germans and Soviets cheat with professional athletes in everything but name who took performance-enhancing drugs while the International Olympic Committee looked the other way. They did not want their Olympic team to take part in a Soviet propaganda festival. To many, it looked like the Moscow Olympics of 1980 would be a repeat of the Berlin Olympics of 1936 in Nazi Germany. Despite strong popular support for the idea of a boycott, though, the Carter White House discovered it had to lobby the U.S. Olympic Committee to not send a team. The U.S. Olympic Committee was not inclined to support the boycott. It was only when the administration began talks with corporate donors, asking them to withhold funds until the committee supported U.S. foreign policy, that it complied. There was also loose talk among policymakers of seizing the passports of the athletes so they could not leave the country. Even then, the vote in the U.S. Olympic Committee was less than enthusiastic. Two-thirds of the members voted for a boycott, but many were open that they were doing so reluctantly. About half of those voting against going to Moscow actually wanted to send a team.
Today, the Biden administration would have even less leverage over the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Cold War is long over. The American public might not be happy with the People’s Republic of China, but the ideological confrontation of years past is largely gone. Popular support for a boycott just is not there, even with considerable anger at China for misleading the world about COVID-19. In 1980, Joe Biden, then the junior senator from Delaware, called the talk of seizing passports of U.S. athletes “outrageous.” He had a good reason for objecting, saying at the time, “We cannot have a foreign policy that does not have overwhelming American public support and expect that foreign policy to succeed.” The U.S. Olympic Committee is also a much wealthier organization now than it was in 1980. For four decades, it has received a percentage of the contracts the International Olympic Committee has signed with U.S. television networks and has garnered a great deal of income from corporate sponsorship programs rather than donations. That gives it a lot more resources to stand up to outside pressure, certainly more than it had 41 years ago.
Another consideration that may be difficult for many people to accept is that the absence of U.S. athletes will not be that much of a factor in the success of the 2022 Winter Olympics. The United States is a middling power in the world of winter sports. Norway, on the other hand, is a world power of the first order. So are Canada and Germany. All of these countries won more medals (gold and overall) than the United States at the last Olympics in Pyeongchang. The nations that matter at the Winter Olympics are those with mountains and a lot of either snow or ice: Think Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Austria. Those are the nations that will make or break a boycott in 2022. The Norwegians and the Germans do not seem particularly interested in supporting any political action against the games. It is hard to see a boycott without these and other nations that dominate the winter sports scene as anything other than feeble. That outcome is probably worse than going to Beijing.
There is also a strong argument to be made for going to the 2022 Games. Sen. Ted Cruz recently said, “We should go to Beijing, compete, and win.” He has a point. No one remembers much about the 1980 Olympics boycott or how many gold medals the Soviets won at the Winter Olympics that year, but everyone remembers the gold medal the U.S. Olympic hockey team won. It is also unlikely that China will benefit much from hosting. China is not a power in winter sports. At the last winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Chinese athletes won only one gold medal. The United States won nine.
The Olympics, though, have a glamor all their own, and no one nation makes or breaks this gathering. The games are more than a series of athletic contests. The world comes together for a brief moment and is thrilled with feats of athletic skill. Races are held, world records are set, and people win medals. When the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, no one really missed them. Americans were having a party, and the Soviets were missing out. The same attitude had existed in Moscow four years earlier. No one missed the Americans. The Winter Games are smaller than the summer ones, but the basic experience is still the same.
The Olympics are also about more than the host nation. In every Olympiad, there are stories of spirit, sacrifice, determination, endurance, fairness, and sportsmanship. As Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, put it when explaining why he opposes a 2022 boycott: “When my skates hit the ice, I knew America was behind us. Every single Olympian feels that pride, and it’s what makes the Olympics special. It’s the one sporting event in which our whole country roots for the same jersey.” In a way, a country’s athletes really are competing for their nation.
Another consideration for attending the games is that the Olympics provide an opportunity to put a spotlight on issues the Chinese Communist Party would prefer to ignore. The Olympics will open up the country to journalists who will probably ask a lot of questions. Some will be about sports but others will be about Hong Kong, COVID-19, the Uighurs, or Tibet. Normally a state with a security service that does not have to worry about press freedom would have no problem besting foreign journalists, but the Olympics is different. The games are a large public gathering like no other and require a television network for maximum coverage. There is no way the Chinese can get around having foreign journalists in Beijing. It is also worth noting that the number of journalists covering the games will be measured in the hundreds or even thousands. They will be operating in several languages. It might just be too much for the publicity department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee to control.
One of the more important voices on this issue is that of President Joe Biden, and he has maintained silence on this matter. On April 11, when asked about the possibility of a boycott, Secretary of State Antony Blinken replied: “We’re not there yet.” All of this suggests that the administration has kept its options open on a boycott and has room to maneuver on the issue.
If the Biden administration wants to do something, it is better off operating behind the scenes. The White House should release a statement that it will take no action on the Olympics. This will put the onus on the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is where it should be in the first place. The members of the committee can then explain why the United States should or should not go to Beijing.
Sen. Mitt Romney has proposed a political boycott: U.S. athletes compete while political leaders absent themselves from the games. That proposal is fine, and squares the circle more or less. Political leaders at the games are a ceremonial presence and their absence does no real damage. Things might be a bit clearer if the U.S. Olympic Committee were called the Colorado Springs Olympic Association, but that name would hardly invoke as much interest.
There are better options that will probably have more impact than a boycott. Americans should not travel to China to watch these games. There is no reason that Americans should spend their dollars there, giving the Chinese the revenue that comes from hotels, meals, and tickets — and encouraging Americans to stay away from China is an easy sell in the wake of COVID-19. The Biden administration should also talk to the NBC television network and have it refrain from broadcasting blatant political propaganda. The Chinese might control the cameras, but that does not mean Americans have to transmit the images the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to see. These conversations should also take place with the European networks covering the games.
The Biden White House should also have conversations with corporations that are sponsors of either the Beijing Winter Olympics or the International Olympic Committee, suggesting that they reconsider their sponsorship agreements or contracts to provide goods and services to the games. These moves will get far more attention in Beijing than a noisy but ineffective boycott. A reassessment of their sponsorship might very well be good business for these corporations. These firms associate with the Olympics because of the sterling reputation of its brand. If the International Olympic Committee is letting that image get tarnished by associating with repressive regimes, it is no longer bringing to the partnership what it once did, and corporations need to reassess if the negatives have come to outweigh the positives. It is possible that many corporations will be reluctant to do what is in their long-term best interests because they are worried about backlash in China and the loss of that market, which is why administration officials need to have private, pointed discussions alerting the corporations to the fact that the cost of stalling — which could include backlash among customers outside China, loss of market share, and lower profits — could be much worse than those of quick action.
The Biden administration might also want to have conversations with the U.S. Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee. The U.S. committee should be encouraged to limit its participation in the opening and closing ceremonies, which is presumably where most of the propaganda will take place. The administration could even tell the U.S. committee not to use the U.S. flag at the games. The talks with the International Olympic Committee should take place on an individual basis, starting with the Americans serving on the committee, the president of the committee, and those members sitting on the organization’s executive board and finance sub-committee. The administration needs to make it clear that if the International Olympic Committee continues to focus on technical issues like the transportation system of a city, stadium seating capacity, and how many hotel rooms a municipality has to offer while ignoring basic political and human rights issues, there will be a price to be paid.
That approach will get attention, but a boycott will simply not work.
Nicholas Evan Sarantakes is an associate professor of strategy and policy at the United States Naval War College and is the author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: John Kelley