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The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are at the crosshairs of two political crises: Accusations of human rights violations that have prompted several nations to declare diplomatic boycotts of the Games, and the rapid spread of the Omicron variant that raises questions about the appropriateness of athletes travelling from around the world to Beijing.
In a recent interview with CBC News, Canadian International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound revealed there is no chance the 2022 Games will be postponed. That means it’s up to national Olympic committees whether athletes will attend.
In response to threats of boycotts related to the human rights crises, prominent sporting and government officials took what I call either a “sporting exceptionalist” or “crude instrumentalist” position.
The former argues that sport and politics should not mix; the latter that even if sport is theoretically intertwined with politics, its use is ineffective and causes more harm than good.
But there’s a third perspective on sport and politics, it’s a viable “soft power” resource, that takes a more nuanced view of how sport might be used as a political tool of persuasion instead of coercion.
Telling a ‘new’ story
Governments use “mega sports” (like hosting the Olympics) to shape their images at home and abroad, to present themselves in a certain light, to tell a “new” story.
It is no coincidence that in the 21st century, nations often at the margins of the established “world order” — including China, Russia, Qatar, India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates — regularly host mega sporting events or invest in high-profile sporting clubs.
Viewing the 2022 Beijing Olympics human rights crisis from a “soft power” perspective may not result in obvious calls for a sporting boycott. But it does consider the leveraging of sport for political purposes as a very real and powerful tool at the disposal of governments. It also takes into consideration not only the tangible implications of such a decision, but the symbolic effects.
Contemplating the withdrawal of Olympic participation from a “crude instrumentalists” perspective would demand hard evidence that the return of democracy to Hong Kong would be stimulated by a boycott. “Sporting exceptionalists,” however, would refuse to even consider such actions and reiterate the need to keep sport politics-free.
An impenetrable Olympic bubble
In his interview with CBC News, Pound pointed to the extreme measures Chinese organizers, with support from state officials, would take to ensure the Olympic “bubble” remains impenetrable. And because that’s been done, the health and safety of athletes is apparently of limited concern. But politically this raises two questions that ought to be addressed.
First, should Chinese officials be lauded for employing strong measures to shield the Games from the coronavirus when critics argue this same force is at the heart of the Hong Kong and Uyghur human rights controversies? And second, what message is sent to the rest of the world when athletes can freely travel, access increasingly sparse testing resources and are not subjected to “employment” restrictions as the Omicron variant rages across the globe?
In their rejection of boycott considerations, Olympic defenders typically refer to the unnecessary cost of an athlete giving up their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete. But what about the unfortunate Olympian left at home due to a poorly timed positive COVID-19 test result? Could athlete “rights” be better protected all around by postponing the Games until the pandemic (hopefully) subsides?
My intention here is not to stake out a position on whether nations ought to send their athletes to the Beijing Winter Olympics or to withdraw participation for political reasons. In fact, as a sport fan, I look forward to the Olympics and cheering on my home nation’s athletes.
But I want to highlight the inevitable and complex political climate within which the Games happen and how sporting and government officials must face this head on.
The Olympics, and all “mega sports,” are inevitably embedded in the political contexts of their times. To dismiss or bypass the political issues that arise within or are connected to them seems naïve at best, purposefully disingenuous at worst.
Sport is such a powerful force because it is riddled with tensions and complexities. Sport is at once free and restricted; spontaneous and highly organized; enlightening and crass; constant and fragile; playful and political. This makes sport, particularly in its “mega forms” like the Olympics, so compelling and important.
It’s OK to love sport, to get caught up in the Olympic spirit — however we should do so with our (political) eyes wide open.
Tim Elcombe does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.