Sports

Why Isn’t the U.S. Boycotting the Beijing Olympics?

Three women speed skate in a single line with text on the wall behind them that says Beijing 2022.
Kristen Santos, Eunice Lee, and Corinne Stoddard of Team USA train ahead of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on Monday. David Ramos/Getty Images

As of now, Henry Bushnell from over at Yahoo Sports is supposed to get on a plane this week to cover the Olympics in China. But the rules about COVID in China really don’t look very much like the rules here, or even the rules in Japan during last year’s Summer Games. China is still trying for “COVID zero.” You might have heard about the woman who said she got stuck at a blind date’s house for four days when the coronavirus shut a whole neighborhood down, or about the pet stores in Hong Kong that were culling hamsters, suspected of spreading COVID. This was all over the past few weeks.

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And thousands of journalists and athletes are about to touch down in this country, bringing their hometown germs with them. “I want to be pretty confident that when I get on that plane to China, I don’t have COVID,” said Bushnell. “If you test positive on arrival, you’ll be stuck in a isolation facility for 10 days at minimum, and your Olympics are more or less over.”

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He’s also has some “pretty extensive” plans in place around his cybersecurity. That’s the other thing about the upcoming Olympics: They are happening in an increasingly brazen authoritarian state. So even if he’s COVID-free, Bushnell has got these other looming concerns—about who will be watching him and how free he’ll be to do his job. “I have a temporary phone and computer. I’m not going to be using my normal email. I’m not even going to be able to log into my personal Twitter account.”

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And here I thought the Olympics were supposed to be fun. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Bushnell about how the pandemic and increasing diplomatic tensions are coming to a head just in time for the 2022 Winter Games. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary Harris: The 2022 Olympics weren’t supposed to be in China. The International Olympic Committee scanned the globe for host countries seven years ago, and President Xi Jinping’s bid was considered a long shot. 

Henry Bushnell: I had somebody describe it to me as a trial balloon bid that a lot of people thought was frankly a joke.

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Why?

Because the favorites for these 2022 Olympics were traditional Winter Olympic cities like Oslo. There were four European cities who had either launched bids or had expressed interest in bidding. It was those four, and then it was Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. And then, for various reasons, the four European cities backed out—either for political reasons, or there wasn’t vocal support, or they were worried about the economic risks associated with hosting.

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So suddenly you’re left with China and Kazakhstan.

And Kazakhstan almost won the vote. The vote was 44 to 40. That’s how much reservation there was about giving the games back to Beijing 14 years after they had hosted the Summer Games. Nobody was expecting for China to get the games, and then the IOC essentially was left with no choice.

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And there were all these reasons why they shouldn’t get it. I was reading that snow is actually not a big thing in the place where the skiing competitions are being held.

The IOC warned about that and said the games are going to rely 100 percent on artificial snow. I believe it’s the first time that that will ever happen. You’ll see some of these pictures of the mountains on which the competitions are going to be held; it’s basically a completely dry, nonwhite mountain. And then there’s this little sliver of white that is the snow for the downhill skiing or whatever.

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Xi Jinping also made promises about human rights. What were those?

Back when China bid for the 2008 games, the whole narrative was that the games would open up China to the world and make it a more responsible global citizen. And that didn’t happen. Human rights experts say that things have gotten exponentially worse in China since then. So this time, there has been no narrative around human rights. They haven’t said that these games are going to open up China or improve human rights in the country. Everybody, from the organizers to the IOC, is more or less just trying to ignore that angle of it.

It’s interesting because when you look at quotes from Olympics officials about Beijing and how happy they are with how the Olympics are going to play out there, they mostly seem super thrilled with the efficiency of the project. Like, it came in under budget, and China built these high-speed rail lines to get you between the Olympic villages. And it’s amazing that they basically created ski mountains and planted all these trees so it looked pretty. And I read that and I thought, Well, yeah, that’s what you get when you’re organizing something as an authoritarian state. You can keep it under budget, and you can deliver big things because there’s no one else pushing against you.

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And to some extent, that is just the standard buttering up of the organizing committee and the kind words coming from the IOC. You could find versions of that before every Olympics, more or less. But on the other hand, I’m sure all the venues are going to be great. Whereas in Tokyo, there were stories of people spending five, six hours just getting through the airport upon arrival. I’ve heard that the Beijing process takes less than an hour and it’s very smooth, and I’m sure the hotels will probably be better, and the whole process will probably be great in a weird way.

China was, of course, also the first country to experience the brunt of COVID-19. And I want to talk about how China’s dealing with hosting the games, given that the pandemic is still ongoing. You alluded to all the hoops that you’re going to have to jump through just as a journalist to get to the games. What are the athletes have to go through? When you speak with them, what do they tell you about how they’re trying to ensure that they stay healthy, that they’re able to compete?

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Frankly, some of them are scared. I talked to a speed skater a couple of months ago who said that she’s ordering delivery groceries on Amazon and Whole Foods, doing curbside pickup, drive-thrus only. And she’s still scared that she’s going to get COVID. Even an asymptomatic illness can take this thing away from them that they have prepared for for four years.

What stood out to me when I was reading about these COVID restrictions is the fact that it seems like China actually overruled the IOC when they were negotiating over health protocols. The Olympic committee wanted things to be a little more open than China did. And China said, “No, that’s not what we’re doing here.” I’ve done a number of shows about the Olympics, and I feel like I’m always doing a show talking about how the IOC is bullying its host countries and pushing them around. But here it seemed like exactly the opposite. The host country was running the Olympics.

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This year, more than ever, that does seem like the case, and you see that in terms of the IOC not being willing to speak about human rights. China is just a very valuable country, a very valuable market, a very valuable government to the IOC. You saw ahead of the Tokyo Games, for example, China obviously developed its version of the vaccine pretty quickly and offered vaccine doses to the IOC for any Olympians that wanted them ahead of the games who couldn’t get them in their home countries.

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So it’s this whole political web more or less. A lot of people have accused the IOC of being in bed with China here, and to some extent that’s true.

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It’s a bad look to be in bed with China right now. The government’s repressive moves are well-documented. There are the harsh crackdowns on dissent in Hong Kong, and of course the detention of nearly 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims in a northwestern region of China. The U.S. State Department determined last year that China’s actions amounted to genocide and that its government had been committing crimes against humanity since 2017. 

In recent years, the Olympics have come to be a bit of an international reputation-laundry service. But longtime sports commentator Bob Costas says this year’s games are different. And he took to CNN to wag his finger at NBC, his former employer, and denounce the International Olympic Committee.  

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A lot of people are disgusted, including athletes. Athletes don’t want to be in this position where the narrative around the biggest event of their lives is about all this nonsports stuff. They don’t want to be put in a position where activists are urging them to speak about China’s human rights abuses and alleged genocide.

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Can you tell me more about that. The Olympians, when you speak with them, how are they thinking about the human rights issues?

It’s interesting because a lot of them seem very much afraid to speak up, and it’s unclear how much of that is direct instructions from people around them, or if they’ve been educated on the potential consequences of speaking up. But I spoke to one snowboarder off the record several months ago now, and she basically told me, “Look, obviously me and a lot of other athletes, we’re not on board with what China is doing. We think all of this is very wrong.” But they’re afraid to say anything about it.

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The athletes have been put in this predicament because the IOC won’t address the human rights abuses. The burden has fallen to the athletes, and a lot of the athletes think that’s unfair. Mikaela Shiffrin, a top U.S. skier, had a great quote when this was in the news last year. She more or less talked about feeling like she had to choose between supporting human rights and doing her job and competing in the Olympics.

So what will the Olympics look like here in the United States like? I know that NBC has felt compelled to bring on people who will add some nuance about human rights to their broadcast. But do you have any hints about how that’s going to look and feel for a viewer?

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It’s a very interesting dynamic, especially given the way we’ve seen broadcasters handle human rights conversations in the past. Obviously, NBC has this long-term contract with the Olympics. They’re caught up in this web. NBC will be more successful if the Olympics are more successful, and the Olympics will be more successful if the story isn’t all the human rights stuff, it’s the incredible athletic achievements. So I’m almost certain that’s going to be the vast majority of what NBC covers.

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The Biden administration has, of course, announced a diplomatic boycott of the games. What is that going to mean?

It doesn’t mean anything for the sports. It’s a political story. It’s symbolic. It’ll be perhaps a story at the opening ceremony because U.S. politicians won’t be there. Canadian politicians, British politicians won’t be there. Putin will be there.

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Even though he’s not supposed to be there, right?

Right. Technically, Russia is banned from the Olympics, but there was a loophole in that ruling that allows him to be there as a personal guest of Xi.

So I guess we’re seeing a lot of the limits of rules here. Why not an actual boycott?

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Because it harms athletes. A lot of people in the Olympic world say that a full-on boycott just uses innocent athletes as political pawns. A lot of people think that the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games, which was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, wasn’t successful and didn’t have the impact it was intended to have.

Because Russia didn’t leave Afghanistan.

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For, like, nine other years. Now, you could argue that what it took away from Russia in terms of international prestige and legitimacy did have some sort of impact. But the bigger impact was on the individual lives of the athletes who had put so much into making it to that event, and they just had that taken away from them. And that is the hesitancy of a boycott. The U.S. Olympic Committee and the IOC have done a very good job from a public relations perspective of getting out in front with this narrative that full-on boycotts don’t work. And so I don’t think that was ever seriously considered this time around.

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