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“Arduous” would be one way to describe the just-completed Olympic Games in Tokyo, held in the midst of a state of emergency in Japan due to the coronavirus. That may seem pleasant compared to what is coming early next year.
The XXIV Olympic Winter Games in Beijing will start on 4 February and are already the center of strong protests from multiple groups, over Chinese actions against Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan and most recently the treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang Province, labeled as “genocide” by the U.S. State Department.
This has nothing to do with the sports or events of the Winter Games and the International Olympic Committee has repeatedly praised the preparations of the Beijing organizers, themselves working within significant coronavirus restrictions inside China. But after all of the tumult over getting the Tokyo Games to take place at all, you can look forward to more and more anguished public comment about holding the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing and the surrounding mountains.
The most recent public slam against Beijing 2022 came from the U.S. House of Representatives, which showed exquisitely bad timing by holding hearings on the subject during the Tokyo Games, when all of the attention was on the Olympic competitions in Japan.
Nevertheless, on the same day as the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China released a letter from co-Chairs Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Massachusetts) to IOC President Thomas Bach (GER) that began:
“We are writing to ask the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the XXIV Olympic Winter Games scheduled to be held in China in February 2022 and to relocate them if the host government does not change its behavior. No Olympics should be held in a country whose government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity. …
“We believe that it would reflect extremely poorly on the Olympic movement, and the international community in general, if the IOC were to proceed with holding the Olympic Games in a country whose government is committing genocide and crimes against humanity as if nothing were wrong. To proceed with business as usual is implied consent and suggests the IOC has learned nothing from the Chinese government’s use of the 2008 Beijing Olympics to score propaganda wins and distract from its appalling human rights record. The IOC is on course to set a dark precedent where the behavior of future Olympic host governments is unconstrained by the international spotlight provided by the Olympic Games.”
The letter noted that as the 2020 Games were moved to 2021, “This demonstrates that the IOC is capable of orchestrating a postponement of the Olympic Games on short notice. If the Olympic Games can be postponed for a year for a pandemic, they can be postponed a year for a genocide.”
Further, a hearing was held on 27 July and representatives from U.S.-based IOC sponsors Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Intel, Proctor & Gamble and Visa were asked whether the 2022 Games should be relocated. Reuters reported:
“All of them declined to opine, or said they had no responsibility over site selection.
“‘We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete,’ said Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s global vice president for human rights.”
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Florida) introduced H.Res.162 back in February, calling for a resolution that the U.S. should boycott the Games and not send a U.S. team. It has gone nowhere. Same for his H.R.3645, the “Beijing Winter Olympics Sponsor Accountability Act,” which would “prohibit the Federal Government from contracting with persons that have business operations with the Beijing Organising Committee for the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games or the International Olympic Committee, and for other purposes.”
More attention was paid to a 15 March essay by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was the head of the Salt Lake City organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Games. He suggested:
“Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer. …
“The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics. American spectators — other than families of our athletes and coaches — should stay at home, preventing us from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets. American corporations that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games should send them to U.S. venues instead.
“Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us.”
Romney is quite right on this, but with the pandemic still in play in China, it is unknown whether there will be spectators in Beijing at all, even though the head of the IOC’s Coordination Commission, Spain’s Juan Antonio Samaranch Jr. – son of the former IOC President – is vociferously campaigning for it.
And new “Playbooks” that detail the restrictions to be placed on attendees to the Games at all levels are expected to be published in September or October and updated as the Games get closer. The Tokyo organizers were deeply concerned about the spread of the virus in Japan; will the Chinese organizers for 2022 be more concerned about the virus or about other matters?
Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a 30 June rally that “the Chinese people will absolutely not allow any foreign force to bully, oppress or enslave us and anyone who attempts to do so will face broken heads and bloodshed in front of the iron Great Wall of the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
So what happens now?
● Romney’s advice is the best: let the athletes go, as they have very little role in deciding where the Games will be held. The best advertisement for the U.S. in China will be to have American athletes do well there; the U.S. won 23 medals in PyeongChang in 2018 – fourth-best in the total medal count – and will do about the same in Beijing. In any case, Norway will be the big winner again.
● A diplomatic boycott of the Games by the U.S. and other nations will make an impact on the Chinese, no doubt. Whether this can be pulled off is another matter, but it would make a significant splash.
Same for limited U.S. attendance by fans other than family members.
● News media who attended the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games remember well the challenging communications and access conditions there. Look for more of the same in 2022; on 29 July, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price issued a condemnation of Chinese treatment of out-of-country news media, including:
“The PRC government claims to welcome foreign media and support their work, but its actions tell a different story. Its harsh rhetoric, promoted through official state media, toward any news it perceives to be critical of PRC policies, has provoked negative public sentiment leading to tense, in-person confrontations and harassment, including online verbal abuse and death threats of journalists simply doing their jobs. …
“We call on the PRC to act as a responsible nation hoping to welcome foreign media and the world for the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
If the number of foreign press attending the Games is thinned – it was down 30% in Tokyo – this would also send a message from the media to the Chinese government, dulling the impact of the Games on worldwide audiences.
It’s worthwhile to remember that NBC had more than half of its Tokyo commentators working from U.S. studios, thanks to real-time, cloud-based transmission of the host signal made possible by Chinese tech giant Alibaba (an IOC sponsor). Perhaps more for Beijing?
We are only at the start of the public discussion about Beijing 2022 and what should or should not happen. Thus far, it appears that the athletes will be mostly unaffected as there are still widespread, unpleasant memories of major boycotts at the 1976, 1980 and 1984 Games (and a few folks in 1988 as well).
Completely lost in all of the furor is what Bach and the IOC have done to keep from having to go through this again. Bach was deeply impacted by having to preside over a terrible choice between Beijing and Almaty (KAZ) in 2015, and has pushed through massive changes in the Games bidding process that now encourages discussions – resulting in a directed outcome that is best for the IOC – instead of a vote. Result: following Beijing, the Games will be in France, Italy, the U.S. and in 2032, Australia. The 2030 Winter Games appear headed for Canada, Japan, Spain or the U.S.
But for Beijing, buckle up. It gets bumpy from here.
For our 649-event International Sports Calendar for 2021 and beyond, by date and by sport, click here!