After a rousing six-month break, the Olympics are back, and they’re worse than ever! Though the 2022 Winter Olympics will undoubtedly be thrilling and exciting, they will also be a complete horror show. The pandemic that forced the postponement of the most recent Summer Games is still happening and still dangerous. The host nation, China, is a serial human rights abuser led by a dictator who knows that his nation’s economic power renders it broadly impervious to international sanction. As if all that weren’t enough, given the typically dry winters in the Beijing area, the bulk of the snow at these so-called “Winter” Games won’t even be real. Given all of these ongoing moral disasters, why are we covering the Games in the first place?
It’s a good question. It’s worth noting that it also isn’t a new one, and it’s one that we wrestle with every Olympiad. Since 2012, I’ve covered six separate Olympic Games for Slate, including this one, and every single one of them has been, in its way, indefensible. The process of building out the 2012 London Games led to rapid gentrification of the city’s historically impoverished East End and the displacement of hundreds of people from the Clays Lane housing estate. The 2014 Sochi Olympics took place amid new anti-gay laws in Russia, the imposition of a “forbidden zone” around Sochi that prohibited demonstrations and protests on matters “not related to the holding of the Olympic Games,” and documented human rights abuses in the run-up to the Games.
The Rio Games in 2016 happened amid a severe recession in Brazil and an outbreak of the Zika virus; the open water events took place in an actual cesspool, and the Olympic Village was assembled in such a slapdash manner that the Australian team initially refused to move in, only to wish they had stuck to their guns when they were forced to evacuate due to a literal garbage fire. The 2018 Pyeongchang Games were “the most politically tense Olympics in decades,” as Slate’s Joshua Keating put it at the time. Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee effectively abdicated its responsibility to impose a meaningful punishment on Russia after it got caught running a long-term sports doping scheme: The IOC banned Russia from Pyeongchang but allowed individual Russian athletes to compete there under the rubric of Olympic Athletes from Russia. Last year’s Tokyo Olympics, of course, took place during an ongoing viral pandemic in a country that, at the time of the Games, had only vaccinated a tiny percentage of its population.
You get the idea. There is no such thing as a blameless Olympics. Even by the low standards of the recent past, though, the 2022 Beijing Games stand out as being particularly awful, given both China’s rotten human rights record and its growing indifference and hostility to criticism of the same. By now it’s pretty well acknowledged that China continues to pursue genocidal policies against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, subjecting them to surveillance, internment, sexual abuse, and torture. Last fall, the country effectively disappeared tennis player Peng Shuai after she leveled sexual assault allegations against a high-ranking Chinese official; she reappeared in December to retract her claims. Chinese President Xi Jinping is an autocrat who has presided over an ongoing anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong, has escalated tensions with Taiwan in the name of “peaceful reunification,” and has proceeded toward the goal of zero COVID via a slew of “iron-fist, authoritarian” measures, as per the New York Times—even as the nation has resisted the World Health Organization’s relatively recent efforts to seriously investigate the pandemic’s origins.
It is tempting to idealize the Olympics and argue that the Games are a liberalizing force, that the act of gathering the world together in one place for a massive sports festival promotes tolerance and progress and unity. Xi’s Olympics will put the lie to this naïve fantasy. It’s worth remembering that China only got the 2022 Winter Games in the first place because no other developed nation wanted them; the country’s only serious competitor was Kazakhstan. The rest of the world passed up the Winter Olympics because, well, they tend to lose a ton of money and make people in the host nation really upset. But China doesn’t really need to care about what the public thinks. For Xi, the Winter Games are an authoritarian flex, a chance to show the world just how efficient and organized an Olympics can be when you can literally just tell everybody what to do and they have to listen to you. As Sam Borden noted in a recent ESPN piece, after China won its bid for the 2022 Games, an honorary IOC member from Switzerland remarked that “dictators can organize events such as this without asking the people’s permission.” God bless the IOC and its cadre of elderly European doofuses who cannot help but always say the loud part loud.
So, given that these Games are eminently boycottable, why should we cover them at all?
Well, for one thing, the world events that are the most boycottable are also the ones that cry out the most for journalistic coverage. Covering a horrible thing is not automatically tantamount to enabling that terrible thing. Terrible things tend to happen regardless of whether reporters are present, and often those things become more terrible if reporters aren’t there. By covering a terrible thing, you document the thing and turn the world’s eyes toward the thing. Reporting alone won’t stop China’s human rights abuses, but it goes a long way toward ensuring that they do not happen in secret.
Journalists have a responsibility to cover newsworthy events that they do not personally agree with. No one would seriously suggest, for example, that the New York Times refrain from covering a war because war is bad and by reporting on it you glamorize it. Likewise, even though the press and President Donald Trump seemed bound up in a mutually destructive relationship during his presidency, it was still important to cover the dumb and toxic things that he did and said, because he was the president of the United States, which meant that his words and deeds had real impact on the real world, and thereby were newsworthy no matter how much many of us wished that they weren’t.
The Olympics are newsworthy, too. Though sports lack the direct sociopolitical import of wars and elections, they are an ongoing part of human history and have mattered to people for millennia. Events like the Olympics matter to people in a different way than do geopolitical occurrences, insofar as the Olympics only matter because we have all collectively agreed to believe that they matter. Wars and elections are intrinsically important; their outcomes materially and directly affect people on Earth. The Olympics, for the most part, are culturally important. Massive gatherings and spectacles such as the Olympics serve a ritual social function; they bring people together to feel uplift and relatedness as a result of participating in the spectacle. This sense of collective effervescence improves people’s lives in ways that might not be directly quantifiable but are real all the same.
But the Olympics can be politically important, too, and not just via the hokey “Hands Across America” messages that the opening and closing ceremonies are meant to convey. The sheer size and scope of the Olympics—the entire world comes together for two whole weeks, for Pete’s sake—renders them ripe for political action. The Games have seen acts of political violence, such as the attack on the Israeli Olympic team at Munich in 1972, or the Centennial Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996. They’ve seen symbolic political statements, such as the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the medal podium in 1968 at Mexico City. They’ve seen diplomatic incidents, like when Ryan Lochte and his buddies got drunk in Rio, damaged a gas station bathroom, and tried to cover it up by claiming they’d been robbed at gunpoint.
Ryan Lochte is not on this year’s U.S. Olympic team, despite my letter-writing campaign, but something like Lochtegate or Mexico City or, God forbid, Munich or Atlanta might happen in Beijing this year anyway. It’s probably very likely that some crazy political thing will happen at the Winter Games this year. It’d be a massive stage for some political act, after all, and the size of the stage sometimes invites the action. The Games are worth covering for this reason alone. Though China might be able to keep a tight lid on things at all other times, if something strange happens at Beijing over these next two weeks Xi won’t be able to completely stop the world’s media from reporting on it.
China’s human rights record matters. The dire circumstances under which the Beijing Olympics are being held matter. But the Games themselves matter, too, albeit in a different way—and they matter enough to merit coverage. The challenge will be to cover every aspect of the Beijing Games, and to not get carried away by the fun and the absurdity of the sports and the spectacle, and to not let this story be the last that we mention of the politics of the Games. This will especially be a challenge for me, Slate’s Justin Peters. Over the years that I’ve spent blogging the Olympics for Slate, I’ve come to specialize in very, very dumb stories, like who the biggest jerk at the Olympics is, and what the best job at the Olympics is, and who the best Todd at the Olympics is. I’m not a feet-to-the-fire reporting guy, I’m a what-if-skaters-skated-to-the-tune-of-George-Costanza’s-answering-machine-message guy. I don’t know if a steady diet of exclusively dumb stuff will be enough this time around. I might have to try a little harder and push myself a little more.
There’s a certain cover-your-ass flavor to articles like this: curtain-raisers that acknowledge the horrors underpinning the Olympics but end by shrugging and saying that, well, we’re going to cover them anyway. Well, we are going to cover them anyway. We’ll be training our eyes on the goofy and the sublime, analyzing the outcomes and the coverage of the various events, and biding our time for the inevitable moment where some figure skater unwisely does a routine set to the theme from Schindler’s List. But my hope for this year is that we also cover them holistically and critically, with all the warranted scrutiny that we can muster. And I also hope that, before the Games are over, I finally get around to re-ranking the Todds.