The rulebook for the Olympics — called the Olympic Charter — contains numerous bylaws meant to foster “political neutrality.” No protesting on the field of play, no wearing of symbols or flashing hand gestures. That sort of thing.
Still, politics and the Games have a long, uneasy history.
Think back to Nazi Germany using the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda tool or Palestinian terrorists kidnapping and murdering Israeli team members in 1972 in Munich. The United States and Soviet Union traded boycotts in the 1980s and Chechen rebels threatened to attack the 2014 Sochi Games.
In each of these cases, the competition soldiered on. This time feels different.
The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing have come under fire from human rights groups who oppose holding them in a country accused of persecuting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. The U.S. and its closest allies will protest by refusing to send a customary delegation to the Feb. 4 opening ceremony.
International Olympic Committee leaders, who selected China for financial reasons, have pushed back by insisting their quadrennial event is “beyond all political disputes.” At a time of unprecedented social activism in sports, this ethical debate has athletes caught in the middle.
“I know it is something that a lot of people are thinking about,” American ice dancer Evan Bates said. “We’re human beings too and when we read and hear about the things that are happening [in China] … we hate that.”
Broadcasters and corporate sponsors will walk a similar tightrope. They have paid big money to attach themselves to the Olympic rings and now must balance the celebration of graceful triple axels and blazing downhill runs with a harsher reality.
Could politics turn Beijing into the “Feel Guilty Games?” The answer is complicated.
In an era when it costs billions of dollars to host the Olympics — and authoritarian countries can write the check with no threat of referendum or public backlash — there weren’t many options for selecting a 2022 host.
Bidding came down to Beijing and the untested city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after several European candidates withdrew. China won in a close vote and recent events suggest that, if the IOC had picked Almaty, there might not have been a Winter Games this year.
Still, choosing Beijing sparked immediate criticism because of China’s human rights record, its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and aggressive foreign policies toward Mongolia and other neighbors. Tibetan students protested by chaining themselves to the rings outside IOC headquarters in Switzerland. It did not help, image-wise, when one of China’s own athletes, tennis player Peng Shuai, disappeared for several weeks in November after publicly accusing a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. She later said she was misunderstood.
“The Olympics are inevitably a moment of passion and drama. That is to be celebrated,” wrote Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But Beijing’s goal is to use them as a propagandist cover for repression.”
A recent trend has made it difficult for athletes to ignore the hue and cry.
The murder of George Floyd by convicted officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020 and subsequent police shooting of Jacob Blake triggered a new level of social awareness in the sports world, something more than Muhammad Ali resisting the draft or Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Athletes began protesting in larger numbers as walkouts forced postponements in pro basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and tennis. At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, the U.S. women’s soccer team kneeled before games and shot putter Raven Saunders crossed her arms overhead on the medals podium to show support for “people who are oppressed.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that an athlete can take a stand,” said Tucker West, an American luger. “Athletes have a voice and why not use [it]?”
But the urge to be socially responsible became trickier when, as the Beijing Games approached, some called upon Olympians to stage a boycott.
The Winter Games are held only every four years, offering rare television exposure to niche sports such as biathlon and ski jumping. The Biden administration acknowledged as much in announcing its diplomatic boycott, choosing not to penalize athletes who have spent a lifetime preparing for their moment in the spotlight. As figure skater Vincent Zhou said: “Having concerns about things going on in the political climate or elsewhere is important, but not productive towards our primary goal.”
The ice dancing pair of Bates and Madison Chock, also a couple off the ice, exemplify the mixed emotions that many Olympic hopefuls have felt in recent months. While Bates describes human rights abuses as “terrible … awful,” Chock has fond memories of competing in China.
“The people that we’ve met … have been wonderful,” she said. “I know that those issues don’t represent the entire country because there are so many good people.”
Chock has had another reason to feel conflicted.
“I am part Chinese and that has instilled a love for the country in me,” she said. “There’s just a lot to it and it’s not so black-and-white.”
With L.A. hosting the 2028 Summer Games and Salt Lake City bidding for the 2030 Winter Games, it should be no surprise that U.S. Olympic leaders have adopted the IOC’s stance on China.
“We strongly believe that the governments of the world, including our own, and the respective diplomatic teams and experts, should lead the conversation about international relations,” said Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. “We’re still trying to stay in our own lane.”
The question is: What, if anything, happens next?
The IOC has enacted a human rights policy for host cities but that doesn’t take effect until the 2024 Paris Games. Though activists have called for a television blackout, NBC has paid $7.75 billion for Olympic broadcast rights through 2032 and will proceed as planned. It remains to be seen how primetime host Mike Tirico and his colleagues will address the subject on air.
Major sponsors — including Visa, Toyota and Coca-Cola— have been similarly quiet. Omega told Bloomberg News it is monitoring the situation and Allianz issued a statement saying: “We stand behind the Olympic movement and our longstanding support for its ideals will not waver.”
As for the diplomatic gesture by the U.S., along with allies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, are fans really going to miss First Lady Jill Biden or Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff sitting in the dignitaries’ box next month?
All of which puts the onus on athletes. They clearly want to compete in Beijing but might also use the opportunity to speak out. The USOPC is preparing for demonstrations on the field of play, with chairwoman Susanne Lyons saying: “Certainly our athletes will have points of view.”
China has not reacted kindly to public criticism in the past. State-run television pulled NBA games after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support of Hong Kong protestors and actor John Cena felt the need to apologize — in Mandarin, no less — after referring to Taiwan as a “country” in an interview. China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. Tennis player Peng is merely the latest Chinese celebrity, businessman or activist to disappear after condemning the government.
“With no guaranteed protection by the IOC or the Chinese authorities, we strongly advise athletes not to speak up about human rights issues while in China,” Global Athlete, an international grass-roots group, said in a statement earlier this month. “The disappearance of Peng Shuai is a glaring example of the type of the risk athletes face when they speak up. "
USOPC officials recognize the potential for trouble in Beijing.
“We are absolutely making sure athletes understand the rules and laws of the country that we’re going to and where those risks might be because those laws and rules are different than they are in our country,” Hirshland said.
Though the “continued political tension,” as Lyons calls it, could become a distraction, freestyle skier David Wise believes that he and his teammates will stay sharp.
There won’t be much time to ponder geopolitics once the competition begins, certainly not when Wise drops into the halfpipe and gathers speed to launch himself off the lip, spinning, twisting, cartwheeling through the air.
The two-time Olympic gold medalist figures that all of his attention will focus on landing safely, all those ethical debates fading away.
“I personally don’t have enough bandwidth.”