With a Possible Boycott of the Olympics by the U.S. in Question, the Politicization of Sports is as Important and Relevant as Ever
Written by Colin Beasor
The 2022 Winter Olympic Games, being held in Beijing, China, have drawn ire due to human rights abuses committed by the government against the Uighurs and other ethnic minority groups. This has called into question the possibly of boycotting the games, something that the United States has not done since the 1980 Summer Olympics in the Soviet Union. Whether or not this is the right course of action is subject to debate; however, the complaints of “politicizing sports” are disingenuous toward the history of the Olympics.
The White House has been relatively vague about the direction the U.S. will take, with an official statement saying that there hasn’t been a final decision made on boycotting, and “of course we would look for guidance from the U.S. Olympic Committee.” The debate about whether or not to boycott the Olympics has drawn considerable attention from the GOP, with a split in its base about what direction the U.S. should take.
In an opinion piece written by Sen. Mitt Romney, for instance, Romney calls for the U.S. to avoid boycotting the games and instead perform an “economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.” In doing this, Romney calls for the U.S. to take numerous courses of action including urging U.S. spectators to rethink attending the games, alter the traditional delegation to consist of “Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities,” and collaborate with NBC because they have “already done important work to reveal the reality of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and brutality.” In doing this, Romney argues, Chinese revenues will be reduced, their propaganda will receive less visibility and Chinese abuses will be exposed.
Contrasting Romney is Ranking Member of the House Committee on Homeland Security Rep. John Kato, who wrote a letter to the president calling for a U.S. boycott of the games. “The United States cannot in good faith participate in an Olympic Games in a country that is committing genocide and continuously attempts to manipulate and lie to the global community about such atrocities,” Kato wrote.
The two arguments share similarities: the Chinese government must be punished for their role in atrocities committed against their citizens. Yet they depart in their method of punishment, with some viewing the boycott argument as implicitly being a punishment against U.S. athletes. In fact, in her call for a boycott, former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and 116th Gov. of South Carolina Nikki Hailey considered this, tweeting that “it would be a terrible loss for our athletes, but that must be weighed against the genocide occurring in China and the prospect that empowering China will lead to even greater horrors down the road.”
This all ultimately boils down to how politics influences sports, a rather contentious topic itself. For instance, a 2019 poll of ESPN viewers found that “85% of avid sports fans don’t want politics on ESPN.” Yet, as was seen this past summer, politics is an integral part of sports. After the death of George Floyd, NBA teams, for example, adorned their uniforms with statements related to social justice. Furthermore, sports icons like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color-barrier in the MLB, are evidence of this.
This is also true of the Olympics and various World Championships (for the sake of argument these will be clumped together since global competitions are held in various locations around the world and athletes compete on their country’s team). Arguably the most famous example of this occurred in the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico when two American track and field sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, performed the black power salute on the medal stand, protesting injustice suffered by African Americans in the United States. Smith and Carlos were punished for the act, immediately being suspended from the U.S. track team when they returned home.
More recently, in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Ethiopian marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head forming an “X” shape after crossing the finish line in second place, an act meant to bring attention to injustices being performed by the Ethiopian government. Lilesa wrote, “I did it to raise awareness; hundreds of my fellow Ethiopians ha[d] been killed by security forces only because they peacefully protested against injustice. I knew there were millions of people watching the Olympics, and I wanted the world to see me. I want[ed] to tell the world what [was] happening in Ethiopia — in Oromia, Amhara, Ogaden, Gambella and elsewhere.” The repercussions of this action were significant for Lilesa. As he explained, “I [knew] if I went back to Ethiopia, I [would] be killed, arrested or put on a list of people never allowed to leave the country again.”
In the 2013 IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, Russia, 800-meter runner Nick Symmonds used his second-place finish to criticize Russian legislation that “criminalized homosexual propaganda.” An NPR article noted that “The official state news agency RIA Novosti reported that the middle-distance runner became the first athlete ‘to openly criticize Russia’s controversial anti-gay law on the country’s soil.’” Symmonds was quoted as saying ‘“I believe that all humans deserve equality as however God made them,’” and further stated that ‘“whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.’”
Granted, in an article written in Runners World, Symmonds argued that “the playing field is not a place for politics.” It is the fact that he still made these statements during a World Championship competition that makes this argument rather null. Symmonds made these statements in the midst of an international athletic competition, somewhat contradicting his claim that he would not voice his opposition toward those Russian laws indicating that his reasoning was “out of respect for the fact that I will be a guest in the host nation. Just as I would not accept a dinner invite to a friend’s house and then lecture them on how to raise their kids, neither will I lecture the Russian government on how to govern their people.”
Nevertheless, these three instances exemplify politics’ pervasiveness in global competitions. To argue that the Olympics is not a place for politics, or even sports in general, is ignoring the political history of sports. Whether to boycott the 2022 Games is irrelevant to this argument, rather, this is directed toward complaints of politicizing the Games. The Games have been used as a means to exert political influence (note the 1980 boycott of the Soviet Games), with figures protesting abuse from foreign and domestic governments. This is an important method of expression and a manner with which athletes can use their platforms to exert influence in politics.
The debate about the 2022 Games, thus, is nothing extraordinary. Politics is an important part of sports and to think otherwise is brazenly ignoring history. Ironically, some of the same Republicans speaking out against the Chinese government also spoke out against Colin Kaepernick, discrediting their very stances of keeping politics out of sports.