How the U.S. Can Prevent the Winter Olympics From Being a Triumphant Spectacle for China

Find alternative sites, and make preparations to use them.

Congressional Republicans have taken a range of positions on American participation at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing next February. This month Sen. Mitt Romney urged a partial boycott that would include officials but not athletes or their families. Sen. Ted Cruz takes the position that it was outrageous for the International Olympic Committee to grant the games to Beijing, but since it did, it is perfectly legitimate for American athletes to compete in games convened by the same illegitimate and abusive host government. Other Republicans, like Rick Scott, have taken a more principled position, calling for the games to be moved, and yet others suggest a boycott should an effort to relocate them fail.  

Republican disunity on this question is a gift to the Chinese Communist Party.  

It means that neither the Biden administration nor the U.S. and International Olympic Committees will have to contend with coherent pressure to address China’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, forced labor in supply chains, arrests of freedom fighters and pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong, or religious freedom abuses in Tibet and beyond.  Moreover, the views of Romney and Cruz are at odds with their otherwise staunch positions on the PRC’s domestic repression and international aggression.   

For autocracies like China under CCP rule, the Winter Olympics are a geopolitical event intended first and foremost to boost the stature of the party at home and abroad. Even aside from the medal count for Chinese athletes, for General Secretary Xi Jinping convening the Winter Olympics will be an occasion to welcome business and tourists back to China after the pandemic. Xi will present this as international validation of party rule, even as it obstructs efforts to understand the origins of the virus.   

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Then there is the disturbing prospect of America’s athletes competing in a country that is committing genocide within its borders. If Romney is correct that American officials’ attendance would send the wrong signal, and Cruz that Beijing should never have been awarded the games in the first place, how can it then be right to put our Olympic athletes in the same position? Romney inexplicably suggests that “the global symbolism of our young American heroes standing atop the medals podium, hand to their hearts, as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays on Chinese soil” offsets the hypocrisy of American participation in Beijing’s spectacle while in addition to the assault on the Uyghurs, Chinese rights activists are persecuted, Hong Kong’s freedoms are destroyed, and Beijing tries to “Sinicize” Tibetans’ national and Buddhist identities. 

Both Romney and Cruz dismiss the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as meaningless. President Jimmy Carter is a frequent punching bag for conservatives, but in this case he was more principled on a matter of a communist aggression than are Romney and Cruz. Cruz laments the “scars” of American U.S. athletes deprived of the chance to compete in 1980—but their thwarted dreams pale in comparison to the misery of Uyghurs and other Chinese citizens who face imprisonment, indoctrination and torture and other abuses. A decision about attending an Olympics convened by a communist dictatorship is as much about America’s character as it is about CCP-ruled China’s.

To be sure, losing the chance to compete would be a blow to America’s athletes. That is all the more reason for Romney and Cruz to join an effort to move the games as other Republicans urge. Far fewer athletes participate in the Winter Olympics and in fewer events than the summer games. Distributing events to winter sports facilities throughout the U.S, Canada, Asia, and Europe is feasible. Both the U.S. and Canada have hosted the Winter Olympics in recent years, are already training athletes there, and could easily scale up venues. Chinese athletes should be invited. Even if it is unrealistic to imagine they would be allowed to attend, it would tell Chinese citizens our argument is not with them, but with the CCP and its actions. America’s athletes would not have to face the untenable choice that Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin has framed between morals and doing her job.

Whatever America does will have a ripple effect. A decision to attend—in any manner—will give other countries a pass and could well undermine American efforts to enlist them in united positions on China’s economic and military coercion and assertion of anti-democratic norms. 

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For its part, Beijing may try to neutralize pressure to relocate or boycott the games. The Biden administration should be prepared with a clear position on what would be required for the U.S. to attend. For starters, Beijing would have to end its prosecutions of Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, Lee Cheuk-yan and dozens of other Hong Kong democrats. Beijing would free political prisoners on the mainland. Ilham Tohti, Huang Qi, and the Panchen Lama are just a few; the State Department estimates Beijing holds tens of thousands. In addition, Beijing would end its genocide against the Uyghurs, release hundreds of thousands suffering in camps and allow persecuted relatives of Uyghur Americans who wish to emigrate to do so. Pressure on Beijing to take these steps would only be credible if the U.S. and its allies were to secure sports venues and proceed as though the games would take place outside of China. 

Countries participating in the Olympics in February 2022 will make a choice. There is no “win-win” solution, the phrase Xi likes to use while he is pressing China’s advantage at others’ expense. Both American political parties should come together to find alternative sites for the winter games. If they instead send athletes to a triumphal Chinese Communist spectacle next winter, their protests about the Party’s repression will forever ring hollow.