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The Beijing Olympics are tearing down the IOC’s oldest myth: that sports are apolitical

Let’s see the Beijing Games for what they are: a stage for a rising global hegemony with serious human-rights problems and a democracy on a ventilator

by Jules Boykoff


The IOC continues to hide behind its thin scrim of apoliticism despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Photograph: Ng Han Guan/AP

Less than a month before the Beijing Winter Olympics begin, the Games are a massive political thicket. China is earning global condemnation for its human-rights abuses against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang Province, what Human Rights Watch calls “crimes against humanity”. The Chinese cities of Xi’an and Yuzhou are in lockdown after experiencing the largest Covid-19 outbreak that the country has seen since the early days of the pandemic. The National Hockey League yanked its players from the Games in light of coronavirus concerns. Olympic qualifying events are in disarray, wracked by positive Covid cases. A diplomatic boycott by the US, Australia, Britain and Canada has only added to the mayhem.

When the Biden administration announced its diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, a spokesperson from China’s foreign ministry responded that the Olympics were “not a stage for political posturing and manipulation”, adding that the boycott was “a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic charter” and “a blatant political provocation”.

Hypocrisy abounds in every direction. The Chinese official was right: a diplomatic boycott is a political act, just as China’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the host country’s invasion of Afghanistan was political. While Guantánamo remains open under the Biden administration and home to ‘forever prisoner’ Abu Zubaydah – who withstood CIA waterboarding more than 60 times – the president’s finger waggling looks duplicitous. But when it comes to the hypocrisy Olympics, the International Olympic Committee takes the gold. The group that oversees the Games was the real perpetrator of “a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic charter” when, back in 2015, it selected Beijing to host even though it knew full well at the time that China was engaging in extreme human-rights violations that clashed mightily with the Olympic charter’s commitment to “the preservation of human dignity”.

The IOC’s hypocrisy is legendary. From behind the public-relations lectern the group eschews politics while simultaneously taking credit for convincing political leaders from North and South Korea to create “unified” hockey teams competing under one flag at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games. The IOC trumpets its high-level political negotiations with the Taliban to secure safe passage for Afghan athletes. In 2001, when Beijing was vying for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the city’s bid team pledged that hosting the Games would jump-start political and human rights in China, a claim the IOC used to justify its selection. This human-rights dreamscape never arrived. It’s telling that today, neither China nor the IOC are vowing that the Olympics will spur democracy.

The IOC’s willful gullibility reemerged when it meekly intervened in the case of Peng Shuai, the three-time Olympian in tennis who accused a high-level Chinese politician of sexual coercion. IOC president Thomas Bach held a 30-minute video call with the athlete and then issued a statement that she was “safe and well”. This was more a blatant publicity stunt designed to ensure that the Beijing Games proceeded apace than a sincere effort to appraise the athlete’s well-being. Peng later retracted her allegations under suspicious conditions.

The Beijing Olympics are about so much more than sport. The US diplomatic boycott arrives amid escalating tensions between China and numerous western nations. In the US, China has become a bi-partisan punching bag, with politicians on both sides of the aisle making evidence-free claims that would make McCarthy blush. This feeds oversimple narratives that juxtapose a freedom-loving USA against a diabolical Chinese state. In turn, this sanctimonious outlook stokes the US war machine; when Congress passed the whopping $770bn defense bill, which included $24bn more than Biden requested, analysts rationalized the uptick by citing China as a rising geopolitical threat. This saber-rattling ignores the fact that the US has around 750 military bases circling the world while China has only one, and it comes at a time when US-China cooperation is vital on climate change and other security matters.

Moreover, US politicos are swift to slam China while ignoring human-rights abuses for which they are responsible, from kids in cages at the Mexico border to unquestioning support for Israel (a country Human Rights Watch recently described as carrying out “crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution” against Palestinians) to the homelessness situation in the US, a humanitarian crisis in plain sight (in Los Angeles, the 2028 Olympic host, around 1,500 unhoused residents have died since the coronavirus pandemic began). The demonization campaign is working: in 2021, the Pew Research Center found that 67% in the US held negative feelings toward China, an increase of 21% since 2018.

In a sense, the IOC is complicit in escalating tensions between China and the US, and it has placed athletes in the middle of the imbroglio. On one hand you have an obvious human-rights abuser as host and on the other you have the IOC twiddling its thumbs as it prepares to count its money. In this ethical vacuum, pressure is building on athletes to step up and lead – some academics and activists are even calling on athletes to boycott the Games.

Olympic athletes are in a vexing position, but it’s the International Olympic Committee that has placed them there. Athletes have no say where the Olympics go, and when the IOC hands the Games to a repressive host, Olympians all too often bear the brunt. The IOC has a slogan, “Putting Athletes First”. But when the IOC handed the Olympics to Beijing, it actually put athletes among the last.

The IOC continues to hide behind its thin scrim of apoliticism despite abundant evidence to the contrary. If nothing else, the 2022 Beijing Games should be the death knell of the risible myth that the Olympics are not political. Sports are never simply sports. Let’s see the Beijing Games for what they are: a stage for a rising global hegemony with serious human-rights problems and a democracy on a ventilator.


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