The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To prevent the next Olympic embarrassment, the world needs to take a stand

A safety lantern with the Olympic flame is in place in Beijing's Olympic Tower. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
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In the fall of 2014, the International Olympic Committee informed the three cities vying for the 2022 Winter Games that they would have to abide by nondiscrimination language based on Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which states: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

The hopeful hosts were Norway, long considered a standard for human rights; Kazakhstan, which Human Rights Watch reported at the time had a “poor human rights record [that] continued to deteriorate in 2013”; and China, which, despite being rewarded with the 2008 Summer Games in part as incentive to reduce repression by its government, remained, according to HRW, “an authoritarian one-party state … [that] places arbitrary curbs on expression, association, assembly, and religion; prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations; … and justifies human rights abuses as necessary to preserve ‘social stability.’ ”

The next summer, the IOC chose China.

That was when this country should have thrown up its hands in disgust and tried to rally the rest of the world to force the IOC to live up to its own ideals by, if not rejecting Beijing, at least establishing a deadline for it to clean up its act or watch the Games move to a country more respectful of human rights.

In pointed snub, no U.S. government official will attend Beijing Winter Olympics

The Biden administration’s declaration last Monday that it would signal its measure of displeasure with Beijing by not sending diplomats to the 2022 Games — scheduled to start in less than eight weeks — was the weakest of sauce. And not just because the Women’s Tennis Association abandoned its events in China after former Grand Slam doubles champion Peng Shuai, who is Chinese, dropped from sight after publicly accusing a former top Communist Party official of sexual assault. How about because just three days after Biden’s announcement, a British tribunal issued a 63-page report that supported other findings and suspicions that China was committing genocide and crimes against humanity in its treatment of a Muslim minority, the Uyghur people?

It is too late to act by conscripting U.S. athletes as the political combatants this government couldn’t produce in its ranks to pressure the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to pull its teams from the Games, as faux tough guy Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and his reactionary colleagues are haranguing now on Capitol Hill. It also may be unfair. I recall Anita DeFrantz, who rose to become a U.S. Olympic and IOC official, telling me how angry she was as a rower on the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, having all she trained so long for taken from her after the Carter administration convinced the U.S. Olympic team to pull out of the Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviets reacted by escalating their occupation of Afghanistan and, in a tit for tat, boycotting the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. DeFrantz wound up leading a lawsuit against the U.S. committee for her teammates’ right to participate.

An athletes’ boycott of the Beijing Games at this point also may be less productive for protest than having the athletes show up. After all, what do you remember? That U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, with black-gloved fists in the air, to demonstrate for basic rights for Black people in this country and marginalized and oppressed people around the world? Or that Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) acceded to the original plan hatched by athlete-turned-academic Harry Edwards and stayed home?

The reason the IOC pledged to enforce an anti-discrimination agreement with hosts of its Games was because of what happened after it awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi. Seven months before the Games commenced, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law against the promotion of “nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. That coincided with, if not sparked, a rise in violent attacks against gay men in Russia, according to Human Rights Watch. The LGBTQ community around the world reacted with protests. But calls for athletes, particularly those who were gay and lesbian, to refuse to attend weren’t heeded. Instead, those athletes showed up not only to compete in their sports but to object to Putin’s regressive regulations to his face.

The Olympic boycott movement that failed

But like China’s reaction to the reward of the 2008 Summer Games, Putin’s government hasn’t changed its behavior toward its LGBTQ community. And the country continues to be charged with other abuses of human rights, highlighted by the continued jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and the growing threat of an invasion of Ukraine.

Upon Biden’s announcement that U.S. diplomats wouldn’t grace the Beijing Games, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian spat that the boycott “seriously violates the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto ‘more united.’ ” It was as risible of a statement as it was ahistoric.

The Olympics have never been apolitical. What is arguably its most iconic event, the marathon, was born from a political event, when the messenger Pheidippides, according to legend, ran from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Greeks had won the battle there over the Persians.

If the Olympics were about political neutrality, then athletes would represent themselves rather than arrive and be celebrated while swaddled in the flags of the countries from which they hail. Ralph Rose knew as much. When the modern Olympics in 1908 introduced the Parade of Nations at the Opening Ceremonies in London, Rose, as flag bearer for the United States, refused to dip the flag as asked in front of the host country’s royal box in London. Rose was of Irish descent and was said to be making a point about the sovereignty of Ireland. You would be hard-pressed to find an Olympics not affected by politics.

All of which is why the international community must demand that this not happen again. It isn’t enough that host countries simply accept some pledge to uphold human rights. They should have to prove it before even being considered as an Olympic city, so the world doesn’t end up with what it’s again about to get in Beijing: a mockery of the universal ideal of sport.