Here we are on the cusp of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and what is nobody talking about? The athletes and the competition in the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
We haven’t heard much about the speed skating competition, the latest American hope in women’s figure skating, the hockey (except that NHL pros are not playing), not to mention what is on every sports fan’s mind: whether or not the U.S. men can win back-to-back golds in the curling rink.
Instead, buzzing all across media — social and conventional alike — are comments about the moral bona fides of the country that has been awarded this quadrennium’s games: that country is guilty of genocide against the Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region; it is considered, even by its Western friends, a very politically repressive state; it cracked down on freedoms in Hong Kong; it “disappeared” a tennis star, Peng Shuai, for accusing a party official of sexual assault on social media; it’s perpetually threatening Taiwan, a friend of the West for 70 years, with invasion; it’s building all sorts of islands in the South China Sea for military purposes; and then there’s the little matter of a virus that has killed millions and totally screwed up life on this planet for two years coming out of a lab located right in the heart of the country.
A consensus has arisen in our country — rare though that be — that we have to do something about this. We’re saying something — even some on the Left are doing that. But what can we do?
The Biden administration is instituting what is called a “diplomatic boycott.” We’re not going to send our bureaucrats over to watch the Games. You can almost see the amber liquid pooling around the shoes of Chairman Xi and company over that. The Chinese response to the diplomatic boycott was to say, in part, we’re cool with that, we never invited your diplomats in the first place.
But, apart from genocide and the crimes against humanity — no small matter indeed — other factors about the Beijing Games should trouble any devotee of liberty. For example, media commentators and athletes have been warned not to criticize the regime, and if they do they may be arrested and imprisoned. (I wonder, think they’ll arrest you for criticizing LeBron James?) And athletes who compete must download a phone app that will permit the Chinese government to track their location and health, and maybe more. That’s why Team USA is telling athletes to use burner phones and disposable computers in Beijing. So, in addition to everything else, no freedom of speech, no freedom of self-expression.
Whether boycotts work or not depends on the meaning of the word “work.”
And then there are the virus restrictions. The Games will be conducted under zero-COVID strictures that make California look like Florida. Participants will live their Olympic days in a “closed-loop” bubble, the strictest such enclosure ever created for a sporting event, according to one news story, which lasts from the time they arrive until the time they depart. Life will consist of travel from the hotel to the train to the athletic venue to the train to the hotel. Nobody outside goes in, nobody inside goes out. So, no sightseeing, no sampling the street food, no roaming the streets and getting a feel for the town. And no fans — or at least international fans. Residents of mainland China, after jumping through some hoops, can sit in the stands and clap, but they may neither chant nor cheer. Also, athletes are told to steer clear of hugs, high fives, and handshakes, but free condoms are distributed in the hotel rooms.
Some virus-free American athletes are even worried about getting into the country. These athletes, usually vaxxed and boosted, have contracted the Omicron variant but have recovered from it and are worried they may not pass the stricter tests conducted by the Chinese when they arrive. Failing those tests would mean quarantine until two lab tests can be passed, administered at least 24 hours apart. Who knows how long that would take.
Also, if nothing else, it is a transgression against the spirit of the Winter Olympics that the host city receives little to no natural snow. Sochi 2014 comes to mind; officials at those winter games, held at a subtropical resort on the Black Sea, were forced to dip into a cache of 710,000 cubic meters of the white stuff taken from the Caucasus Mountains the previous winter and held under giant insulated blankets. The skiing venues for the Beijing Games — Yanqing, 90 kilometers from Beijing, and Zhangjiakou, 180 kilometers away — happen to be located in one of the driest parts of China. It might be cold, but there’s no precipitation; ergo, no snow. About 300 snow guns, tapping local reservoirs of water, are humming full time to ensure sufficient depth on the tracks for the skiing events. They’re even pumping the artificial stuff on the ground alongside the ski runs, so when TV shows the skiing events, it will look like Vail or Aspen.
But all that said, it’s settled. Athletes from around the world, including U.S. athletes, are going to compete in the Games. No boycott by athletes, as in the 1980 Moscow Games, will occur.
Boycotts, we are constantly told, don’t work. And in the sense that the local populace will enjoy immediate relief from Chinese oppression on the strength of American athletes staying home, they’re right; no way that will happen.
But whether boycotts work or not depends on the meaning of the word “work.” Pundits from across the political spectrum — from Laura Ingraham to Charles Lane — are urging a viewership boycott of the Games. Not watching the Olympics — if done in sufficient numbers — would send a message to NBC, which paid the International Olympic Committee $7.75 billion to broadcast Games from now to 2032, that Americans are rebelling against collaboration with a repressive state. If enough Americans refuse to watch the Games so that network officials hear us and repent of their mistake, the boycott will have worked.
Boycotting sponsors would send a message to corporations doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars per half-minute spot that their support of repression — indirect though it might be — is prompting many to avoid purchasing their product or service.
And, who knows, maybe if enough Americans raise a stink, even the people in the administration will get the idea that they should stiffen their spine when dealing with our South Asian foe.
If that happens, a boycott will have exceeded our wildest dreams.