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Tone Down the Politics to Save the Game

Aug 06, 2021


Even as the COVID-diminished Summer Olympics grind to a conclusion in the hot Tokyo summer, the Winter Olympics scheduled for Beijing next year have become a scorching topic. On July 27, 2021 several members of the U.S. Congress made an incendiary call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. 

This poorly-timed act of political grandstanding is an insult to the Olympic tradition of bringing nations, including rivals, together for a round of peaceful competition. 

Due to a pandemic-related postponement, the winter games will follow the summer games in short succession. Only half a year apart, the Tokyo games and Beijing games invite inevitable comparison. Which of the two historic rivals will have the satisfaction of having hosted the more satisfactory of the back-to-back Olympics? 

Japan, hobbled by its own sluggish response to the COVID pandemic, had to postpone the Tokyo games for a year before the Liberal Democratic Party-led government finally insisted on it, going against popular opinion and the advice of public health professionals. 

There may be some latent satisfaction in staging the ill-starred games, since a downsized performance is presumably better than no performance at all, but COVID rates continue their inexorable climb and the stubborn insistence of putting on the games come at the price of barring spectators from almost all venues. 

Japanese athletes are performing well, but Japan will lose money on the games. The losses come not just in terms of low ratings and reduced advertising revenue, but in tourism, stimulation of the economy and the ineffable but not trivial matter of generating goodwill. 

The most expensive Olympics ever, with a billion-dollar renovated stadium as its centerpiece, world athletes played to empty stands. 

China’s response to the pandemic, universally decried in the early months of 2020, now looks in retrospect to have been not only robust but effective. Keeping up the current remarkably low rate of infection is necessary if the winter games are to be held, let alone deemed a success, but Beijing seems on track to reach that objective, barring unforeseen epidemiological developments. 

Where Beijing stands to suffer is in the political arena, as a group of righteous, right-wing politicians in the U.S. are currently leading the charge to boycott the games. The ostensible reason is Beijing’s policy in Tibet, Hong Kong, and other integral parts of the country, but in this season of knee-jerk China-bashing, any old reason would do. Simply put, there is a constituency in American politics that has determined China to be a Cold War-type enemy that has to be countered at every turn. Nor is it possible to appease or please America’s hardcore hyper-nationalists; in their eyes China can do nothing right and America can do nothing wrong. 

Japan, which is normally quick to follow the U.S.’s lead in global politics, both for reasons of opportunism — as evidenced in the chummy relationship between former Prime Minister Abe and former President Trump, and for reasons of quiet coercion, as evidenced in decades of yielding to a heavy-handed U.S. military presence in Okinawa and other bases around Japan, has prudently been quiet on the topic of the upcoming winter games. 

Had Beijing and Tokyo started to engage in a shouting match before the summer games were held, the prospect of tit-for-tat boycotts would have loomed and ruined both games. Instead, Japan took the high ground diplomatically, making Team China feel reasonably welcome, and Team China, with its hundreds of athletes and dozens of top medal-earners, is surely one of the pillars, economically and athletically, of the Tokyo games. 

Presumably Japan will take the high road and participate in the winter games, returning China’s favor of lending credibility to the tainted Tokyo games, but if both the U.S. and Japan should both refrain from participating in the Beijing games, it could very well mark the death knell for the modern Olympics. 

It is true that the games, scheduled every four years on a clockwork-basis, have a knack for intersecting with political developments. The best known case of pulling off a reasonably successful set of games against frightening political headwinds are the Berlin games of 1936. The Tokyo games of 1940 were cancelled by all-out war. The Soviet games held in Moscow were boycotted by the U.S., and the USSR, with 14 aligned Eastern Bloc countries, returned the favor by skipping the Los Angeles games four years later. Since then, the games have resumed, with China’s participation growing in every cycle, despite the imperfections of politics. 

For the U.S. to single out China and boycott its upcoming Olympics to “hold it to account” is an exercise in hypocrisy. The U.S. would not have looked kindly upon being shunned as an international pariah and “held to account” for its merciless dropping of bombs and aggressive deployment of its lethal war machine over the years in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, to name a few foreign invasions, or for what happens in the streets of America. 

Yet the bossy tenor of U.S. foreign policy, under Biden almost as much as under Trump, continues to insist that the countries it criticizes “do as we say, not as we do.” 

The current rearguard actions of a few U.S. lawmakers to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics may actually gain enough steam to inflict damage if not shut down U.S. participation in the games. Already major U.S. advertisers who have signed onto the games (Intel, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, Visa, AirBnB) are being harassed for not caving into demands for a total boycott by the likes of U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, an ill-willed opponent of Beijing. 

Avowed Maoists and Marxists know better than anyone that politics permeates all aspects of human endeavor. And athletes and sports fans know better than anyone that fair competition in the field can, at its best, transcend politics, race, national tensions, and human discord. 

So if the modern Olympics, based on those legendary Greek games so long ago, are to exist, let alone thrive in a world racked with political tensions, war and injustice, the games need a break from heavy-handed political posturing. The games can and should go on, but the politics has to be toned down to allow the magic of bringing people from around the world together in a single venue for good-spirited competition to happen at all. 

The responsibility to keep the Olympics cosmopolitan falls most heavily upon the host country, but all participants must be good sports as well. The International Olympic Committee, much-maligned, and perhaps rightly so, for its inflexible rules has a role to play as mediator. It is good for the games that Japan sought to make the Tokyo Olympics a calculated spectacle of Japanese public relations. Likewise, it is to be expected and hoped that China will be a gracious host and treat all athletic delegations, visiting journalists, sports fans, and other participants with consummate respect. 

Japan had numerous missteps in getting the tone right, but even the pared-down opening ceremony had its moments.

The eerie and enlightening drone display of our planet, a single dazzling floating world rotating against the blackness of night, is as good an image as can be attached to the international games, and it is in that spirit that the Beijing games should go forward.

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