With both fans and diplomatic dignitaries missing, it’s an Olympics that recalls politically combustible Games of the past. COVID-19, like it did for the Summer Games in Tokyo, will also help haunt the premises. The good news is that the athletes will most likely take over our attention as soon as they hit the ice and snow.
The Olympic script includes the invoking of the spirit of friendly competition as a respite from geopolitics.
Yet the global sporting event has long struggled to separate itself from the biggest social and political events of the day: from the 1936 Berlin Games during Hitler's rise to power to the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games to the PLO killings of Israeli athletes in Munich in 1972. There were also major tit-for-tat U.S. and Soviet boycotts of the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.
This year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing fit squarely into this history, with the compounded impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and accusations of human rights abuses chilling a chance for worldwide celebration.
Keep asking about Peng Shuai
As Sam Borden, a senior writer for ESPN, recently wrote, “Can we be grateful that during a scary and wearying pandemic, we will be able to watch and be inspired by amazing performers on a nightly basis? Can we? What if we remember that the show we're captivated by is being put on by a nation which regularly censors free speech.”
Borden also cited the recent case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who has effectively disappeared from public view after accusing a senior government official of sexual assault — a reminder, as we saw at the recent Australian Open that sports and politics are a year-round reality.
But these Olympic Games were already set to be something altogether different, with French weekly magazine Courrier International calling it the “Games of the Absurd."
Courrier International - France
The weight of a boycott
Stadiums will be eerily empty, with close to 3,000 athletes from 91 countries staying in a quarantine bubble and competing without large audiences. But beyond fans, the Games are also going to be short on dignitaries: The United States was the first country to announce a diplomatic boycott of the event on Dec. 8, citing concerns over the treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, and has since been followed by Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and several other nations.
While athletes from these places will still compete, many global leaders and other representatives hope their absence will send a strong message to China as the whole world tunes into the Games. Engin Eroglu, a German politician serving in the European Parliament, criticized the EU stalling on a collective diplomatic boycott. Eroglu wrote in EU Observer that “It cannot be acceptable for EU leaders and officials to pretend it is business as usual whilst China continues its crackdown in Hong Kong, on the Uyghurs, and fuels tensions with Taiwan, directly flouting the values of integrity, respect, and friendship that the Olympics are supposed to embody.”
Other countries are snubbing the Games due to their own domestic issues with China; India announced a last minute diplomatic boycott after a Chinese soldier involved in a 2020 border clash with neighboring India appeared as an Olympic torchbearer. Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson of India's Ministry of External Affairs said it was regrettable that China had politicized an event like the Olympics.
Der Spiegel - Germany
A friend in Putin
But the Olympics are also an opportunity for China and its allies to make their geopolitical weight felt. Russian President Vladamir Putin is making the most of his attendance at the Games along with his country’s 212 athletes, having met Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Putin is clearly trying to strengthen his relationship with the Chinese leader. But he’s also publically distinguishing himself from boycotting countries the U.S. and U.K. that have also been the leading powers criticizing Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.
But where does this leave the thousands of athletes who have dedicated their lives to pursuing Olympic dreams? Most of the skiers and skaters steer clear of politics and plenty of fans would prefer to keep the focus on the sports itself.
Still, the Games are a kind of golden trap.
Joongang Ilbo - South Korea
A golden trap
In Swedish dailyDagens Nyheter, sports journalist Johan Esk writes that even for the Swedish athletes who have openly criticized China, bringing home a medal will make them pawns in China’s propaganda project.
Still, we won’t be hearing much of anything from the athletes the next two weeks that isn’t about speed and snow. This is largely due to Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter that prohibits participants from displaying “political, religious or racial propaganda.”
Some have argued this rule violates athletes' right to freedom of expression, and even seems ironic when many consider the Games themselves to be a propaganda tool for the Chinese state. Clearly, it’s a heavy burden when you are competing not only for yourself, but for your country. And while this year’s Olympics might be particularly colored by the geopolitical context, there are only three colors that really matter — and they begin with gold.
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