Making the Olympics a Political Football – Again

The campaign for an international boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is picking up steam. The effort is showing its greatest strength in the United States, although sentiment for that step is growing in other democratic countries as well. If the proponents succeed, it would be the third time in just over four decades that international politics will have disrupted an event that is supposed to be above such politics. A U.S.-led Western boycott of the Moscow Olympics crushed the dreams of Western athletes that year and made the 1980 summer games a mere shadow of what they would have been if those countries had participated. Four years later, the Soviet Union and its East European satellites retaliated and boycotted the Los Angeles games, further politicizing the Olympics.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is now in the crosshairs of critics (especially human rights activists) who are furious at the communist regime’s behavior on multiple fronts and want to use the Olympics to make an emphatic moral statement. Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and the Uighurs (the Muslim majority in Xinjiang province) is at the top of the list of Western grievances.

The PRC’s imposition of an onerous national security law on Hong Kong in 2020 brazenly violated the political autonomy guaranteed to that entity in the document that transferred control from Britain to the PRC in 1997. Worse, it has become a mechanism for imprisoning dozens of pro-democracy activists and creating a severe chill regarding freedom of expression.

Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang has come in for even more vitriolic denunciations. Critics accuse the PRC government of abusing the Uighurs in multiple ways, including imprisonment, political indoctrination, systematic rape, and other measures designed to eradicate their distinct culture. Indeed, advocates of an Olympics boycott now openly call the forthcoming 2022 winter games the "Genocide Olympics." They also contend that any Western participation will prove as shameful as the participation of the world’s democracies in the 1936 Berlin games, despite the evidence of Adolf Hitler’s brutal repression that had already emerged.

Pressure is mounting on the Biden administration and the governments of those other countries to implement at least an orchestrated diplomatic snub of the proceedings. A refusal to send delegations of diplomats and dignitaries would be the most visible way to express collective displeasure at Beijing’s conduct regarding Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and other issues.

Increasingly, though, the focus of organizations and individuals who want to undermine the Beijing Olympics is on even tougher measures. The Washington Post and other boycott advocates are pressuring sponsors to withdraw their endorsements—and their advertising dollars. If that move comes to pass, it could make the Beijing games even more of a money pit for Chinese taxpayers than the task of putting on the Olympics normally proves to be for host countries. And as noted, some proponents of a boycott want to go even further, pressuring countries to withdraw their athletes from the games, thus replicating the full-fledged boycotts of 1980 and 1984.

A coordinated diplomatic snub now seems more likely than not, even though some of Washington’s allies in Europe and East Asia are likely uneasy about antagonizing PRC leaders. However, major U.S. political figures are strongly advocating at least that action. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi admonished her colleagues during a May 18 hearing regarding the games: "We cannot proceed as if nothing is wrong about the Olympics going to China." She embraced an emotional and uncompromising stance. "For heads of state to go to China, in light of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats, really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide?"

Even in politically polarized Washington, D.C., such sentiments are noticeably bipartisan. Just a few weeks earlier, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, had expressed views similar to those of Pelosi in a New York Times op-ed. Indeed, Romney favored both a diplomatic and economic boycott. "As the Beijing Olympic Games approach," he stated, "it is increasingly clear that China, under the control of the Chinese Communist Party does not deserve an Olympic showcase." Romney did reject the idea of a comprehensive boycott. "Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer." The right stance, he insisted, would be "an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics." American spectators, other than families of the athletes and coaches should stay home, and American corporations should likewise shun the proceedings.

The campaign to boycott the 2022 winter games is only the most prominent recent example of how international politics is impacting the Olympics. Athletes from some countries complained that Russian competitors were allowed to compete under a "Russian Olympics Committee" banner at the Tokyo games, even though the sanctions on Russia as a country that Olympics officials imposed several years ago for an illegal doping program are still in effect. Another incident occurred when China’s government angrily criticized NBC because the network showed "an incomplete map" of China during the telecast of the opening ceremonies. Beijing’s complaint not only focused on the failure to include Taiwan as part of the PRC (a familiar gripe), but that NBC also failed to include a multitude of disputed islands in the South China Sea as Chinese territory.

Such developments are contributing to the erosion of the original Olympics ideal that the games should be above politics. Instead, the Olympics are again becoming a convenient international political football. The Biden administration should not reinforce that process by leading an effort to boycott the 2022 winter games. Granted, the PRC has amassed a dreadful human rights record that deserves widespread condemnation. However, the United States and other countries should deal with that problem through normal diplomatic mechanisms and not further pollute the Olympics.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.