Zuo: Smudging the Sanctity of Sports?

The US diplomatic boycott of this year’s Olympics does not necessarily need to cast a shadow over the Games.

by Andrew Zuo | 2/8/22 4:00am

Something is different about this year’s Winter Olympics. Sure, the general aura of the Games is the same as it has always been — athletes fill the streets of Beijing, broadcasting crews aim their cameras at ski slopes and ice rinks and millions of viewers around the world tune into the opening ceremony. But amid the sharpening of skis, the final polishing of figure skating routines and the hanging of just over 200 flags, constant discourse surrounding China’s treatment of the Uyghurs prevails. For years now, the Asian superpower has been systematically forcing the Muslim minority group into concentration camps in the western province of Xinjiang. The response from the United States has evolved from condemnation to economic sanctions to, now, as the latest tap on China’s wrist, withdrawal of American diplomatic presence from the Beijing Olympics. 

The recent withdrawal drew criticism from President Joe Biden’s colleagues on Capitol Hill, as well as foreign leaders of countries not participating in the boycott and popular figures across the athletic world. On the one hand, politicians and activists bemoan the lack of real punitive action — they see the diplomatic boycott as a “half-measure” representing more talk than walk. Equally vocal political commentators and athletes have criticized Biden’s foray into the world of sports. In their eyes, athletics is a sacred space free from the influence of politics, where performance is dependent not on one’s political leanings but instead on how far one can jump, how fast one can run or how strong one is. In other words, Biden’s choice of diplomatic pressure is seemingly stuck in the middle of several extremes: too strong and too weak, too direct and not direct enough, respectful of China’s autonomy and disrespectful of the sanctity of sports. 

Yet, when it comes to public policy and delicate diplomacy, the middle path can often be the best path. In this case, Biden, and the other world leaders who have followed his lead, have picked the right option — one that spreads awareness of the plight of the Uyghurs while still respecting the traditions of the Olympic Games. 

It is true that the diplomatic boycott falls short of forceful punitive action from the United States but, in choosing the Olympics as the battleground for this issue, Biden has widened the audience and thus broadened awareness of China’s systematic persecution of the Uyghurs. There is no doubt that sports are powerful: They hold a special place in the hearts of watchers around the world and transcend the barriers of culture and language. Indeed, sports have been symbolic of some of the most notable cultural and political shifts in recent history. One of the greatest upsets in sports history — a victory by the United States ice hockey team over a dominant Soviet team at the 1980 Olympics — was also an ideological upset that hurt the international standing of the Soviet Union during the peak of the Cold War.  

The move to pull diplomats from the Olympics was an intentional choice and one that has already started to pay off. Before most of the athletic events even began, 16 million viewers tuned in to NBC’s broadcast of the opening ceremony, where they watched as the Olympic torch was passed into the hands of twenty-year-old Uyghur cross country skier Dinigeer Yilamujian. Smiling, she lit the Olympic fire, taking part in a tradition as old as the Olympics themselves while ushering in renewed discussion of the host country’s treatment of her kin. 

It is hard to deny the effectiveness of sports as a medium for political and cultural change. The harder question, however, centers around the sanctity of the Olympics. Since their founding, the Games have been a place to build a global community — they were imagined as a place where countries would put aside their political differences and channel their competition into athletics. In this vein, it seems counterintuitive to allow international politics a place in the festivities. Indeed, the International Olympics Committee itself warns against the “politicization” of the opening ceremony. However, in a world where media has allowed for incredible scrutiny of the Olympic Games, it has become nearly impossible to separate the politics from the sports. Pundits will comment on anything from the wave of a hand to a stray sentence from a press conference. In other words, whether we want it to be or not, the Olympic Games have become more political than they ever have. 

The Games have never just been about sports and athletic performance, and they cannot be the conflict-free zone for the international community that the IOC wants them to be. Instead, the Olympic Games should be a place to celebrate the global community — the developed and the developing, the majority and the minority, the powerful and the weak. In other words, the Olympics are just as much about communities like the Uyghurs as they are about the sports themselves. To protest, to boycott or to raise issues and awareness for the persecution of a marginalized community may just be the most “Olympian” thing a politician or athlete could do. 

Over the course of the next week, there will be gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to the best of the best, but there will also be metaphorical medals handed out to countries. Countries that were brave enough to stand up to the Chinese government on behalf of the marginalized group it is persecuting, countries that recognized the power that sporting events hold in the psyche of humans around the world and countries that truly embodied the mission statement of the Olympic Games — to celebrate the citizens of the world regardless of race, religion or creed. 

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