The Gold Medal In Olympic Cynicism Goes To…
Planning something a decade in advance presents an obvious hazard. You could plan to start a family with your dream partner, and discover they’re cheating on you. You could plan to send your child to an Ivy League college, only to have your bank account wiped out by economic forces beyond your control. Or you could plan a zillion-dollar spectacle featuring thousands of the world’s most elite athletes, only to realize that you’ve done so in a country credibly accused of genocide by the international community. These things happen.
And so they have for the International Olympic Committee, as the 24th Olympic Winter Games kicked off this week in sunny Beijing. When the IOC somewhat unexpectedly awarded the games to China in 2015, the West’s attitude toward the country was wildly different. There were still hopes of hemming in China’s rise as a superpower — a belief that a “pivot to Asia,” exemplified by the then-nascent Trans-Pacific Partnership, might do the trick.
That hope was shredded over the past decade, along with the rest of America’s political status quo. The consensus in the U.S. has largely reversed its polarity, seeing in China not a wily rival to be drawn into the global village, but a dangerous adversary that threatens the international order through its territorial aggression and well-documented human rights abuses, which include suppressing free speech and perpetrating an ongoing genocide in Xinjiang.
Given this, one might imagine there would be mass international resistance to Beijing’s hosting of the games, which traditionally serve as a showcase for the host country to flex its influence and show off its myriad achievements. And there is… sort of.
The United States, U.K., Taiwan and a handful of other democracies have declared a diplomatic boycott of the games, declining to send state officials as representatives. But an actual boycott, as with the 1980 games in Moscow? No way. Not a single country has withdrawn its athletes. The corporations feasting at the games’ ad-revenue buffet have mostly tried to have it both ways, keeping controversy at arm’s length — as best represented by Coca-Cola, the ur-American brand, which is running its Olympic ad campaign only in China this year. That’s put athletes, not really by any choice of their own, in an equally compromised position, with the American skier Mikaela Shiffrin telling CNN last year that “you certainly don’t want to be put in the position of having to choose between human rights, like morality versus being able to do your job.”
When White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced the U.S. diplomatic boycott just two months ago at the beginning of December, she declared that “diplomatic or official representation would treat these games as business as usual in the face of the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that.”
But they are simply business as usual, and that’s exactly the problem.
This year in Beijing, the world’s finest figure skaters will be as glorious and elegant as ever, the skiers just as laser-focused and fearless, the curlers just as… curl-y. But the event feels undeniably blah, utterly lacking the warm, fuzzy, global goodwill that is, yes, a shared fiction, but also the Olympics’ actual stated reason for existing. The half-measures taken to protest an undeniably morally compromised Olympics are warranted, yet ultimately meaningless. They’re perfectly in line with the impotent muddle that our politics have seemed stuck in since the agreed-upon failure of America’s wars in the Middle East, culminating a now two-plus-year slog through a global pandemic.
Welcome to the Malaise Olympics — try, if you can, not to have too much fun.
If the global community’s effective dodge of these Olympics is so unsatisfying, what are the alternatives? There’s the full boycott, most notably initiated by the U.S. in 1980, when the Summer Olympics were held in Moscow. Sixty-six countries in total sat the games out in protest of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, putting a massive asterisk next to them in the record books as the Soviets and their East German counterparts won the vast majority of medals. When the Soviets returned the favor for the Los Angeles-hosted 1984 Olympics, a similar asymmetry went in America’s favor.
Pretty much everyone agrees in retrospect that these boycotts were ineffectual, bordering on disastrous. The Soviet Union didn’t leave Afghanistan until the end of the decade, and the Kremlin handed Uncle Sam a major public-relations win with the all-American ’84 games, which rivaled “Rocky IV” in their jingoistic myth-making. And all the while, hundreds of actual athletes had their Olympic hopes dashed, their life’s aspirations ground under the indifferent treads of geopolitics. The boycotted games might have been triumphant fun for those watching at home in East Berlin or New York, but not as much for the would-have-beens swimming laps in an empty pool in Maykop or Hartford.
As undesirable as that outcome might seem, equally so is the exact opposite: The Olympics’ traditional full-on bear-hug-slash-advertising-campaign for the home country. Not coincidentally, Beijing itself experienced this less than two decades ago, when it hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. The games were feted as China’s coming-out party as a global power, setting records in every imaginable area both athletic and not. The opening ceremony was awe-inspiring. China won the gold medal count, if not the overall count, after years of runner-up-dom. Everybody was happy — especially an image-obsessed China, led by President Xi Jinping’s more mild-mannered predecessor Hu Jintao — and we marched on into the harmonious future.
Except, not quite.
The hazard of treating these games like any other is, yes, a legitimate moral one of cossetting an abusive police state, but it’s also a political one, as the issue of the U.S.’ relationship with China has been subsumed into our partisan Thunderdome in a way it was decidedly not during the Bush and Obama eras. Today, it strains credulity to imagine a Biden-led presidential delegation smiling and politely applauding the opening ceremony with their Chinese counterparts, not only because of the administration’s policy toward China, but also out of the sheer cynical consideration that their domestic political opponents would make hay on Fox News by accusing them of complicity in genocide.
Complicating the matter is the fact that the World Uyghur Congress — the international body representing the Muslim ethnic group in western China against which the Chinese state has been credibly accused of committing genocide — has stated its desire for sympathetic nations not to fully boycott the games. Instead, they want the games to be a platform to raise awareness for their plight in the style of American athletes’ Black Lives Matter advocacy. Olympic history is filled with images of athletes taking similar stands, most famously the 1968 Black power salute from Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It’s difficult to imagine the reaction such an act might inspire from the Chinese authorities under these circumstances, but such an act would surely inspire global sympathy and attention in direct proportion to those authorities’ heavy-handedness.
None of the options on the menu are wholly appealing. The most notable thing about this year’s diplomatic boycott might ultimately be not the message it sends to the Chinese government, but its unexpected novelty: This is, in fact, the first time that such a boycott has been implemented. It’s an appropriate innovation for a time when many Americans, rightly or not, perceive their leaders as more interested in gestural shadowboxing than the messy, consequence-ridden business of actually getting things done.
Taking more decisive action than a “diplomatic boycott” — in either direction — could inconvenience, or even harm, athletes and politicians alike. It’s for the China-watchers and geopolitical hands to decide which route might actually increase the leverage with which the U.S. and its allies can dissuade the nation from its many abuses. But muddling through these games the way we are now invites its own harm, opening the U.S. and its major corporations to credible accusations of hypocrisy, and encouraging the already-endemic, deeply unpleasant cynicism in American life that assumes a selfish motivation behind any moral stand anywhere, from anyone.
Maybe that’s too much to ask from a competition that awards ice-dancing. But after a long, increasingly miserable few years, Americans and their global neighbors are desperate for something that can uncomplicatedly make them feel good. Pardon the hoary, mixed sports metaphor, but when it comes to that kind of existential bonhomie, the Olympics are usually a home run. That kind of success might never have been on the table given the inherently contentious nature of a Beijing-held Games, but by choosing this particular middle path, we’re not even trying to make contact with the ball.