Anyone can boycott the Beijing Olympics. Everyone should.
Demonstrators on Dec. 10 outside the NBC Sports office in San Francisco protesting Chinese human rights abuses and the network’s airing of the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing, (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images) Opinion by Charles Lane December 29 at 7:51 am Taiwan Time President Biden has announced that the United States will not protest China’s state-sponsored campaign against its Uyghur ethnic minority by refusing to send U.S. athletes to the Beijing Winter Olympics. The United States will, however, keep government officials away from the Games, which begin Feb. 4. Four other countries say they will do the same. This is not the strongest gesture, but it’s better than nothing. The good news is that boycotting the spectacle hosted by one of the world’s most repressive regimes is something every American can do. It’s easy: When NBC’s broadcast comes on, don’t watch. Ditto for NBC’s streaming outlets. Read a book instead; or go for a walk. Whatever you do, just don’t contribute to the high viewership the network’s parent company, NBCUniversal, banked on in 2014 when it paid the International Olympic Committee (IOC) $7.7 billion for U.S. broadcast rights to six Olympics between 2022 and 2032. And thereby teach a lesson in the costs of collaboration with the Chinese regime — to the network and to the corporate sponsors who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for 30 seconds of advertising during the Games, anticipating access to your eyeballs. Boycotting the Games on TV is also a way to protest the broader corruption of the Olympic “movement,” of which holding the event in a country guilty of rampant human rights abuses and military bullying of its neighbors is but one symptom. Others include drug scandals; crooked judging; sexual abuse of athletes; and the inevitable graft involved in site selection and construction. The latest evidence of systemic rot comes from Brazil, where last month that country’s former Olympic committee president was sentenced to 30 years in prison for bribing IOC officials to support Rio de Janeiro’s bid to host the 2016 Summer Games. During the investigation of that case, it emerged that a member of Brazil’s Olympic committee attempted to alert IOC officials, including current IOC president Thomas Bach, years earlier but nothing came of it. (An IOC spokesman said, via email, that the IOC received the whistleblower’s complaint in 2012 — and told him to pursue his concerns through Brazil’s Olympic committee.) This same Thomas Bach made news recently for intervening in the crisis over accusations of sexual assault made by Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player, against China’s former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. Peng vanished from public view after posting the charges on social media on Nov. 2, leading to widespread — and reasonable — fears that she had been subjected to official reprisal. On Nov. 21, Bach took part in what seemed to be a government-staged video conference with Peng, after which the IOC issued a statement claiming she said she was “safe and well" — a propaganda windfall for China. Peng’s colleagues in professional tennis demanded direct proof that she is indeed not under coercion; the Women’s Tennis Association courageously suspended future events in China. IOC officials held another call with Peng on Dec. 1, and the next day pronounced her “safe and well, given the difficult situation she is in.” Bach and the IOC have defended their approach, saying “quiet diplomacy” is more effective. At a Dec. 8 news conference, Bach poured both-sidesism on the human rights controversy: “If we were to start taking political sides,” he said, “this would be the politicization of the Olympic Games, and this, I would think further, could be the end of the Olympic Games.” (A footnote on the IOC’s impartiality: Until his retirement in 2018, Zhang Gaoli was in charge of China’s official preparations for the 2022 Games, and knew Bach from a meeting in 2016.) What’s really hurting the Olympics is continued cooperation with legitimacy-hungry repressive governments, greased by the billions of dollars from multinational corporations. “The Olympic reputation is souring around the world, with fewer and fewer cities vying to host it. Soon enough, NBC could be holding a somewhat toxic property in the Olympics,” Jules Boykoff, a former Olympian who now teaches politics at Pacific University in Oregon, told Variety recently. Indeed, the corporate-IOC nexus was shaken by the debacle of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games, which were postponed by the coronavirus pandemic until 2021, when they took place before empty stadiums — and the smallest U.S. television audience for a Summer Olympics since 1988. Beijing 2022 could be as cheerless as Tokyo: No foreign spectators are allowed, ostensibly due to coronavirus concerns, but probably also to head off protests over human rights. The whole thing is essentially a TV show in a studio, with at least one marquee event, men’s ice hockey, already spoiled because National Hockey League players are staying home due to a covid outbreak. Meanwhile, there are alternative entertainment choices on streaming video, which was a big reason people tuned Tokyo out this summer. Yes, boycotting Beijing could mean missing the battle for bronze in luge. But who cares when you can go back and re-binge-watch every season of “The Sopranos" or “Mad Men" instead? In other words, there has never have been a less painful way to repudiate China’s dictators — and the special interests that enable them.