In the wake of continued human rights’ violations and outcries from advocacy groups and other organizations to boycott the Olympics, democracies like the United States have an important matter to settle: whether or not it should send its athletes to the upcoming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
The relationship between sports and politics is uniquely challenging and rarely presents a clear-cut moral direction. In the Olympics, the most international sports stage, there is a pressure imposed on democratic nations like the U.S. to balance obligations to athletes seeking to participate on the highest stage and sending a clear message to authoritarian nations like China. The Chinese government stands accused of various human rights abuses, including a genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang.
Many recall triumphant images of Jesse Owens taking the gold in the heart of Nazi Germany, winning a victory not just against Hitler’s perverted sense of German superiority but race supremacy in general. However, like other “feel good” moments in sports, this tends to gloss over the dark reality that was the 1936 Olympics.
While Hitler promised to eliminate all suggestions of Jewish persecution from the Berlin Olympics, his actual rhetoric and policy towards the Jewish people and other minorities both before and after the games is more than known. The hosting of the games in the Reich’s capital city was in reality an opportunity for Germany to put its tyrannical and oppressive regime in the international spotlight. There is a real concern that the spotlight and revenue that China will receive by hosting the Olympics could be used to promote propaganda and further human rights violations throughout the nation.
The question to boycott an Olympics in China is not a novel one; the 2008 Olympics were also held in Beijing, and likewise many international entities voiced concerns over participating. While China pledged full transparency for news outlets and journalists, the International Olympic Committee admits to allowing the Chinese government to censor certain internet sites and media coverage throughout the 17 days of competition. At the time, the Chinese government received criticism due to excessive pollution and riots across Tibet.
Olympic boycotts are not uncommon either; notable examples besides 1936 including the 1976, 1980 and 1984 games. The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were famously boycotted by more than 60 countries as a response against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. While the boycott was a clear message of intolerance from the international community towards the USSR’s international agenda, it did little to abate the actual conflict it was seeking to protest, which would not conclude until 1989, albeit in a tactical disaster for the Soviets.
The case of the 2022 Beijing Games provides an opportunity for democracies around the world to finally send a clear message to the Communist Party of China that it will no longer reward genocide, espionage and other illiberal activities with international spotlight and prestige.