Why Is China Hosting the Winter Olympics?
In a little less than a month, the 24th Winter Olympic Games will begin. Most of the time, the Winter Games are not controversial. But this time, the games are a big source of controversy because of their location: Beijing, China.
It’s important to separate the Olympic games from the IOC. The athletes who spend years getting ready for this event in the hopes of winning a medal should not be confused with the leaders in the IOC that are willing to get into bed with anyone willing to pay to host the games.
The International Olympic Committee is, of course, getting ready to stage the upcoming Winter Olympic Games taking place in February in Beijing, China. Beijing should not be hosting the Olympics, but it is. We all know why it shouldn’t host the games: China’s genocidal treatment of the Uyghur minority, the stripping of democracy from Hong Kong, and its threats to take over Taiwan.
Just one of these issues should be enough to disqualify China, but in spite of all this, Beijing will host the games. How did this happen?
Now, I am not a hater of the Olympics. I don’t think they are a waste of money. I am a big fan of the Olympics, both the winter and Summer Games.
I love these quadrennial events for the pomp and circumstance, for the sentimentality of seeing nations coming together to compete and to see athletes from all walks of life who have trained for so many years and given up so much that now have their moment to shine. While I love the Olympics, the International Olympic Committee is very hard to love. No one loves bureaucracies, of course, but let’s face it, the organization is corrupt and has one more than one occasion turned to blind eye towards oppression that’s taking place, especially at host nations.
One only needs to look at the longtime leader of the IOC, Avery Brundage. He was the leader from 1952 to 1972, and during his tenure, he ignored calls to ban South Africa and Rhodesia from participating because of their racist policies.
Looking at Beijing, it would be easy to blame the International Olympic Committee and they have much to answer for. They have a history of ignoring human rights abuses in order for the games to happen. But the fact of the matter is IOC chose China because there was no one there to stop them.
To understand why China won the right to host the Winter Olympics, you have to understand how cities are chosen. Until very recently, nations would select cities to place a bid and for future Winter or Summer Games. For the 2022 Winter Games, a number of bids were taken. Six bids made the final cut including three from liberal democratic societies: Krackow, Poland, Stockholm, Sweden, and Oslo, Norway. All three would have been great locations for the Winter Games. However, one by one, each city pulled out because of local opposition. Some of the opposition was reasonable: the price tag of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia was $51 billion and that too steep a price for many cities. That left two cities that still had bids: Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China. Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, is no bastion of democracy. So the IOC was left with these two exemplars. Even in 2015, the year Beijing was chosen, people knew China had problems. But there was no one there to object and from these two, Beijing was picked.
There is a growing countermovement against the Olympic movement. In city after city in the free world, local groups sprang up to protest the games. This has had an effect. Boston was initially chosen by the US Olympic Committee to bid for the 2028 games. The opposition was so strong that Boston pulled out and Los Angeles stepped in.
The anti-Olympic movement is fueled by cynicism about the Olympics where people believe the games are a waste of money, leaving cities with huge stadiums that sit unused. In democracies, it is people’s right to protest against hosting the Olympics. It’s our right to believe the Olympics is a big waste of time that should be ignored. But do you know who is really, really into Olympic Games? Authoritarian regimes that want to look good in the public eye, by hosting the games, that’s who. Regimes like Russia, China and Kazakhstan don’t have a problem spending a lot of money that can buy them great PR. Did we expect the IOC is actually going to have a backbone and say no? Of course not. They’re going to say yes. And if no one’s there to tell them no, then who’s at fault? We are.
There was a time when the free world was willing to fight to block China from hosting the Olympics. In 1993, Beijing wanted to host the 2000 Summer Games. China wanted these games badly. It was their “coming out” party to the rest of the world. The problem was this happened only four short years after the assault on students at Tiananmen Square.
Democracies and civic society went to work persuading the IOC to choose another city. Here in the United States, the late Representative Tom Lantos of California and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley both worked in trying to get other nations to basically not choose Beijing. The hard work paid off.
The end result: the IOC didn’t choose Beijing, instead choosing Sydney, Australia.
That is how it’s supposed to work. Democracies and civic society respond to authoritarianism by working through the IOC to suit their ends. Maybe if we didn’t see the Olympics in such a cynical way thinking that it’s a waste of time, the free world could have done something back in 2015 when this was up for debate. But we’ve missed our chance. It’s not like there weren’t problems with China when it was chosen, but we missed our chance.
What are we are left with are small gestures such as the diplomatic boycott. Would it really make a difference? I don’t know. But doing something, however small, is better than just ignoring the travesty. Should we do as others have suggested and go for a full athlete’s boycott? It is a tempting proposition, but I don’t think so. Olympic athletes spend years training for this event and boycotting the games means they lose this chance, a chance they might not get again. Our athletes shouldn’t be sacrificed or our unwillingness to stop China when it mattered.
I want to believe that this will be a lesson. I want to believe liberal democracies will get a clue and work to prevent another China or Russia from getting the Olympics. I want to believe that governments and civic society will persuade the IOC to stand up for freedom over tyranny. The IOC is hopelessly corrupt, but 1993 taught us that when the free world comes together, they can change the IOC.
What has changed between 1993 and now? Part of it might be the growing power of China itself has made it harder to criticize China. Thirty years ago, it was still a more developing country, whereas now it is far richer and more influential. In the 1990s it was not uncommon to see Hollywood films that were willing to criticize China. Try finding one now. NGOs also were willing to call China to account in the 1990s, but today we find environmental groups that ask that nations be less critical of China since they are an important partner in limiting climate change.
Sports bodies like the IOC or the NCAA or FIFA are corrupt, full stop. But if we want change to happen, then people have to stop just complaining about how bad things are and do something. If we don’t like the IOC or FIFA giving nations with horrible human rights records, then we need to do what people did 30 years ago and work through the IOC to block such moves. Olympic champion Jim Ryun offers some reforms that could make the IOC less corrupt. He also cites how US Attorney General lead an international move to take FIFA to task for its many crimes including money laundering. There are more options available than just boycotting or canceling the games. As much as we want to blame the IOC for the Winter Olympics, some of the blame falls on civic society for their cynicism and apathy.
The Olympics matter. We might think they are a waste of time, but they matter not just for the athletes but they are the best tool of soft power around. It is a way for host nations to show themselves off to the world. If we care about democracy, then we need to spend the time to prevent things like what’s happened now. The reason Bejing will host the games next year isn’t just because of the IOC, it’s because democracies just didn’t care enough to stop China from getting the games. Liberal democracies and NGOs within those democracies, need to take the Olympics seriously because the Chinas and Russias of the world take them seriously. They see the games for what they are; an opportunity to promote themselves on the world stage. When we become cynical, we allow oppressive societies to run roughshod over the process and be rewarded for going against international law.
Beijing should not be hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics. But they are because democracies failed to stand up.