Colorado Springs, “Olympic City USA,” will be Ground Central for the next year in a conflict that pits a boycott-the-Chinese-Olympics movement against those who demand society separate politics and sports. It is shaping up as an international civil rights debate that comes on top of the Black Lives Matter movement and intermittent race riots reminiscent of the 1960s.
The United States — through civil war, politics and protest — has developed a healthy obsession with civil rights. Despite fringe and vestige hate and supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Westboro Baptist Church, the culture collectively denounces and cancels that which hints of racial and social injustice. We remove statues, rename institutions and advocate boycotts of businesses and events. We cancel adults, ejecting them from schools and workplaces, for racial epithets made in childhood.
As seen in Minneapolis and other major cities, the political class will cancel the police after one or a few officers violates the civil rights of one or more minority suspects.
Then there’s Major League Baseball. In April, the corporation moved this summer’s All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver because the Georgia legislature passed voter regulations. The rules don’t mention race — in fact, they apply to all Georgians equally — but opponents claim minorities won’t be able to comply with guidelines as well as whites. It is an argument patronizing and insulting to minorities, but self-appointed civil rights warriors know the mood of the country. The culture is hypersensitive to acts of racial injustice and not interested in extending any benefits of doubt to those who stand accused.
White revolutionaries who lead civil rights crusades seem to care more about image and perception than how they treat minorities, which explains why Black Lives Matter protests so often destroy Black-owned property. It might also explain the removal of a major summer event from Atlanta, which will only hurt the people of a mostly Black city. The mere assertion that Georgia’s updated voting rules might disenfranchise Black voters led MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred to showcase baseball’s values at Atlanta’s expense.
“Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box,” Manfred said.
Opposing “restrictions” can only mean anything-goes at the ballot box — “vote early and often,” perhaps — which would not be good for minorities in Atlanta. Doesn’t matter. Manfred, managing MLB’s image, wanted to make perfectly clear his organization does not tolerate racism. He easily did so by taking dramatic action to counter an unprovable, unsupportable, and racially insensitive claim that Georgia’s voting rules are racist. Perception talks, and the truth walks.
Our devotion to civil rights has athletes from the little leagues to the majors taking a knee when we honor the American flag. It expresses their belief law enforcement unfairly targets Black people for mistreatment and murder.
The contemporary surge in civil rights sensitivities creates one giant dilemma: China.
From the NBA’s LeBron James to the NFL’s former quarterback Colin Kaepernick to Norwegian soccer star Ada Hegerberg, athletes accept lucrative endorsement deals with Nike and other companies that sell products made by Chinese slaves.
The endorsement deals, the flag kneeling, the MLB’s cancellation of Georgia, the statues, the protests and more combine with the looming China-based Olympics to raise the issue of geopolitical ignorance, selective outrage or downright hypocrisy. Americans want justice served for the racial animosity or incendivity expressed by dead historical figures.
They want to punish and cancel individuals and institutions for racial bias — whether suspected, proven or merely perceived. So, what about China? Should a country that won’t play baseball in Atlanta, because of racially neutral voting regulations, participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in China?
If we participate, hundreds of athletes who live and train in Colorado Springs will pursue their dreams before an international audience. For some, it could mean a life of celebrity stature and lucrative endorsement deals. If we don’t, their dreams will be crushed. Olympic City USA would be sidelined in 2022.
Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the Springs-based United States Olympic Committee, believes we should show up and play.
“Today, a new generation of Winter Olympians and Paralympians are hard at work preparing to represent America in Beijing in 2022,” Hirshland wrote in a May 12 letter to Congress.
“Please give them that chance. They do not deserve to train for the Games under a cloud of uncertainty about American participation in the Games. Instead, we ought to show them our support and our appreciation — at a time of great difficulty, they have trained hard and sacrificed much.”
The clouds of uncertainty are gathering for an unknown forecast. Six days after Hirshland sent her letter, the Tom Lantos Civil Rights Commission of Congress held a four-hour hearing in which witnesses pressed for a “diplomatic boycott” of the China Olympics, relocation of the games, or a full-fledged dropping out by the United States.
The inconvenient conflict has one bright lining: It is refreshingly nonpartisan. Democrats and Republicans agree the Chinese Communist Party tramples human rights, promulgates slavery, and should not get a pass as the world plans to compete in the 2022 winter games.
“Sadly, we are here because the Chinese government continues to crush all political dissent and trample the basic human rights of its people,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said at the hearing. “...as I’ve said, if we don’t speak out against human rights violations in China for commercial reasons, we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anywhere.”
Pelosi recalled how hosting the Olympics in Germany emboldened Adolf Hitler as he led the Holocaust and the murder of more than 6 million Jews.
“For heads of state to go to China in wake of a genocide that is ongoing while you’re sitting there in your seats really begs the question: What moral authority do you have to speak again about human rights any place in the world if you’re willing to pay your respects to the Chinese government as they commit genocide?”
Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican and co-chair of the Lantos commission, detailed how the Chinese government began a mass internment campaign to abuse millions of Chinese Uyghurs on a basis of race and ethnicity. Smith said what began as a surveillance campaign “abetted by U.S. corporations” has “morphed into the forced disappearances of Uyghurs into ‘detention and reeducation’ camps, the forced sterilization of Uyghur women and the forced aborting of their children, and state absorption of Uyghur children into orphanages far from home to be reared with non-Uyghur upbringing while their parents are tortured.”
Gov. Jared Polis last year contacted a member of The Gazette’s editorial board to express concern about forced abortions and sterilizations in China, though he has made no public statement about U.S. participation in the winter Olympics.
The Lantos hearing, full of detailed accounts of human rights atrocities, reminded listeners of dark history. When Chinese government captures, hogties, and transports Uyghurs and other minorities to labor camps, it is not so different from the confederacy upholding plantation slavery centuries ago. It looks too much like 1930s Germany.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014 ordered his government to classify Uyghurs who “dissent” — those who try to resist being captured and enslaved if they don’t renounce Islam — as terrorists. The orders from Xi Jinping, says Smith, were clear: “Wipe them out completely. Destroy root and branch.”
He cited documents obtained by The New York Times and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that reveal China’s plan to bulldoze “mosques and shrines, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith, severely throttling all religious practice, and forcing camp detainees to renounce their faith.”
In addition to Pelosi and Smith, eight testified about the slavery and additional human rights abuses in China.
“The crushing of political and civil freedoms in Hong Kong, the deepening assault on Tibetan culture and religion, the forced erasure of Mongolian and other ethnic minority identities, rampant torture of prisoners of conscience, mass digital surveillance of the entire population, ‘hostage diplomacy,’ unremitting attacks on human rights lawyers, rule of law, freedom of expression, freedom of religion — the list goes on and on,” said Dr. Yang Jianli, founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China.
Human Rights Lawyer and Yale World Fellow Rayhan Asat said the international community will be complicit if it chooses to look away and treat China as a legitimate host of the games.
“The ongoing violence against the Uyghur people doesn’t just dehumanize the people it’s inflicted upon — it also dehumanizes anyone who stands by and lets it happen. Now we have a chance to make it right,” Asat said during the Lantos hearing.
To do so, Asat recommends:
Using the Olympics as an opportunity for “united democracies” to demand the Chinese government free innocent people and close the prison camps
Establish a diplomatic boycott if the Chinese government refuses to cease oppression and slavery
Provide an opportunity for China’s abused minority communities to meet with the athletes and debrief them about the ongoing crimes against humanity.
After a full briefing about human rights in China, Asat said, each athlete should decide whether to participate.
“I believe I have a shot at convincing the athletes to take action,” said Asat, a Uyghur who lived in China before fleeing to the United States and Canada to study.
“The athletes should have a choice to choose whether participating or refraining from the game. It’s a fine White House tradition to host athletes. I hope the Biden administration can create a space for a dialogue between advocates and the athletes about the best ways to achieve the desired goal of all parties and concerned stakeholders.”
Others, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, want the Olympics moved or a full-fledged boycott in which American athletes stay home.
“We cannot allow American athletes to travel to Beijing and reward the Chinese Communist Party all the while that they (are) doing all of the nasty activity that they’re engaged in,” he said May 6. “The Olympics are an expression of freedom and athletic talent. And to hold them in Beijing is completely inappropriate.”
Although he did not testify at the Lantos hearing, Pompeo went public the same day to double down on his position. If we ignore China’s abuses, he said, we accept genocide.
“What’s happening in the 1930s is happening in western China today,” Pompeo said. “There are eerie, eerie similarities between the two, and hosting the Olympic Games — as the Germans were able to do in 1936 — gave great credibility to that regime. We ought not to permit that to happen. The International Olympic Committee has a responsibility to make sure that hosts for these games deserve it. This regime certainly does not.”
The International Olympic Committee in 2015 chose China for the 2022 Olympics, saying the Chinese Communist Party had given the committee “assurances” they would guard human rights. Chinese officials promised to respect the right to demonstrate, freedom of the press to report on the games with no internet restrictions, environmental protections, assurance of justice in labor practices, and more. Critics say conditions have only worsened since then.
On at least one issue, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping agree. Each says sports and politics should not mix and no country should politicize the Olympics.
“The Olympic Games are not about politics,” Bach wrote last fall in The Guardian. “The International Olympic Committee, as a civil nongovernmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times.”
This raises a question: Is it “political” to speak out against slavery, religious bigotry, racism and genocide?
To a lot of Americans, the answer would be “yes.” A Morning Consult poll shows two-thirds of those surveyed oppose a boycott of the 2022 Olympics. It probably means they either oppose mixing “politics” and sports, or they don’t know the extent of slavery and other abuses in China.
Hirshland, of the USOPC, said members of Congress and others advocating a boycott have legitimate concerns. She mentions “the oppression of the Uyghur population which the United States has designated a genocide.”
“We too are troubled by the situation in China. The USOPC does not condone actions that undermine the core values of the Olympic movement — values that include diversity, peace, and respect for human dignity,” Hirshland wrote.
The problem with a boycott, she said, involves a more pragmatic consideration. It would punish U.S. athletes and resolve nothing. It will not promote diversity, peace, and respect for human dignity.
“Olympic boycotts do not have an encouraging history,” Hirshland said.
She has a point. After the old Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. It was an effort to pressure the Kremlin to leave Afghanistan. More than 460 young American athletes had their hopes and dreams destroyed. Many never competed in future Olympic games.
“The Soviet Union stayed in Afghanistan for another decade,” Hirshland said. “In retaliation, the Soviet government kept its athletes home from the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Both the 1980 and 1984 Games tainted Olympic history and showed the error of using the Olympic Games as a political tool.”
Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and co-chair of the Lantos Commission, said the games should be moved. If not, he said, Hirshland and the rest of the Springs-based USOPC have an obligation to ensure the protection of U.S. athletes.
“The burden is on the IOC to find a host government that is not complicit in crimes against humanity,” McGovern said during the Lantos hearing. “The burden is on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to ensure what you (athletes) wear and what you eat are not made with forced labor in Xinjiang or elsewhere, and to protect your right to free expression. The burden is on the corporate sponsors to find a way to fully support your training and equipment without having to subsidize one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.”
McGovern’s concern raises an issue for all to consider. In the United States and most other developed countries, an average person cannot get through a day without doing business with China. More than 20% of American product imports come from China. Chinese factories make most of America’s shoes, phones, household appliances, and components in everything from rosaries, to drones, to navigation systems, and more.
Only God could know if and how China might escalate or deescalate human rights crimes and genocide before the winter of 2022. Americans can be certain the debate of “boycott” “diplomatic boycott” “relocation” or “let ‘em play” will escalate each day the occasion draws near. In a perfect world, politics, civil rights, and athletics might stand alone. In the world we have, as this conflict reveals, they are helplessly intertwined.