The International Olympic Committee, or the IOC, has a long entanglement with political dictatorships and their crimes. The approach of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is one more example of this disgraceful tradition and President Biden’s announcement of an America “diplomatic boycott” is weak and not enough. In fact, it is actually a shocking disregard of China’s horrific abuse of a million members of the Uyghur ethnic minority it has confined in concentration camps.
“The athletes on Team USA have our full support,” said the president’s press secretary, Jen Psaki. The tormented inhabitants of the camps in Xinjiang province do not. They are of secondary importance to an administration that knows it should stand up to expanding Chinese power, but does not have the nerve to withhold athletic entertainment from one of the most totalitarian regimes in history.
For some, this may conjure up memories of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, sometimes referred to as the “Nazi Olympics,” that became a foreign policy triumph for Adolf Hitler. The presence of hundreds of American athletes, the Germans’ primary rivals, was indispensable to Hitler’s propaganda spectacle. American participation in the games wasn’t an inevitability. If only three more Amateur Athletic Union delegates had voted against American participation, the resulting boycott of the 1936 Berlin Games could have deflated this show of Nazi triumphalism.
Today, the upcoming Beijing Winter Games is granted the same kind of legitimacy. And, once again, the response coming from the democratic societies is ineffectual.
The leaders of the world’s democracies are confronting a fateful choice: Either support the rights of the imprisoned and tormented Uyghurs, a large mostly Muslim ethnic group in China, or the right of Olympic athletes to compete.
Accepting the Olympic hospitality of China’s President Xi Jinping will only strengthen his conviction that China’s destiny is to impose his Orwellian surveillance-and-obedience model of governance upon the world.
Biden should seize the moment by inflicting real damage on Xi’s Olympic spectacle by fully boycotting the games. Particularly as the Chinese regime pursues its relentless policy of expanding geopolitical power. Demonstrating principled opposition to genocide requires denying China the services of America’s Winter Olympic athletes. It is a hard choice, but hard choices signify leadership.
Biden seems to have made the political calculation that a complete boycott will antagonize high-profile athletes and their fan base to the political disadvantage of the Democrats. The irony is that the intensifying Republican anti-China crusade gives Biden some political cover to boycott the Beijing Games. Conservative Republicans such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley have called for a full boycott. Why have Democrats conceded the moral high ground on China to political allies of the amoral former President Donald Trump?
Political leaders who are unwilling to draw the line at concentration camps and mass torture should think of President Jimmy Carter’s Nobel Peace Prize and ask themselves how history will judge them. China’s role as an Olympic host is a travesty precisely because its open brutality contravenes the humane and peaceful values the International Olympic Committee claims to stand for. An American boycott would be a dramatic rejection of China’s claim that it is staging an Olympic festival of humanity.
There is also the fact that Xi has more than the genocide of Uyghurs to answer for, such as the early lies about the coronavirus, the crushing of Hong Kong, the persecution of Christian churches, and the recent “disappearing” of the tennis star Peng Shuai.
The message to Xi should be that a country that commits mass atrocities will be regarded as uncivilized by the rest of the human community. That is why American athletes should not participate in his triumphalist Olympic ceremonies.
John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic studies at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of “The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order” (1986) and many other publications on sports and politics.
A version of this op-ed appeared in USA Today.