Sports were never a durable shelter from the world for anyone who wasn’t privileged enough, or naïve enough, to turn them into one. Every game fits into the world it inhabits, for good or ill. The Olympics are even more enmeshed in the rest of the world than other sporting events, as evidenced by the massive political operations that go into landing them for host countries in the first place, the flags that fly all over them, and the nationalistic scenes they create. Maybe the most remembered Winter Olympic moment in U.S. history, the 1980 Miracle on Ice, gained its stature in significant part because the Americans got one over on the Soviet Union amid the Cold War.
Sports do build their own bubbles, though, vulnerable as they might be to popping under scrutiny. Part of the experience of appreciating them is to acknowledge them in their totality. Some traits are good, like the community sports create, the entertainment they provide, and the lives they can help build. Others are bad, like stadium-financing grifts, injuries to players, and the games becoming reputation-laundering tools for unsavory actors.
Maybe the best way to think of sports, most of the time, is not as a lasting insulation from the world, but as a little tent that provides some cover for as long as circumstance allows. The world is right there, but the good and bad of sports push and pull, and sports fans find equilibrium somewhere that lets us keep watching, because it’s fun and we like sports. The survival of a given sport depends on millions of people making roughly that choice—to keep plowing attention into the NFL, for instance, despite the league’s horrid owners, its racism, its lionization of Ben Roethlisberger, or whatever a given person finds odious.
Which brings us to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. It’ll be interesting to see, as the Games go on, how the global public perceives them. My anecdotal experience is that my social circle is paying little attention. Opening ceremony TV ratings suggest there’s a lot of that going around, and the cause can be just about whatever a person wants to argue. One idea that’s gotten a lot of traction is that various Chinese government crimes have made the Games repellant, and that may be showing up in how many people are watching. The U.S. government, among several friends, has given this concept credence.
I have no certain way of knowing why fewer people seem to be watching. But I do have a theory about why the Beijing Olympics, in particular, have come with an uproar about how the Games fit into the world. It is not that these Games are a uniquely evil enterprise standing apart from all other sporting events, but that American media coverage of China, the legitimately wicked actions of the Chinese government, and the overt political maneuvering of key participants have combined to do something they usually do not: They have swept away that flimsy tent.
There might be one pure sports fan somewhere, who enjoys only ethically staged games and whose fandom is exclusively a benefit to their community. I have not met that person. Discarding any sporting showcase associated with any of the world’s inhumane governments or unethical businesses would preclude most of us from liking sports at all. So we draw lines, and at least in my case, they are blurry and not all that consistent. Some events are so obviously over the line that I have no problem swearing them off completely. Last week’s Saudi International golf tournament—which was a second-tier event for already-rich golfers and a sportswashing exercise for a dude who had a journalist chopped up with a bone saw—was easy to take a pass on. Then again, I cover college football for a living, making a career out of an association with a multibillion-dollar enterprise in which the labor is paid in room and board and in which postseason games are regularly sponsored by publicly traded death merchants. I watched the last Formula One race of the season, staged in Abu Dhabi, because I knew it would be good. I wasn’t watching to support a dictatorship, I could say, but to watch elite drivers at their peak.
It would be naïve to not acknowledge the role mass media (of which I suppose I’m now a part) plays in framing what’s acceptable and what isn’t. For one thing, that press coverage tends to gloss over a lot of the ills around American sporting traditions, or at least compartmentalize them while carrying on. Occasionally, it does the same for international events, though that depends largely on whether the host country is an American ally. The United Arab Emirates, home to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, has cozy media relationships on this side of the ocean, to the point that CNN may have taken the dictatorship’s money for an undisclosed PR campaign. There wasn’t a bunch of mainstream hand-wringing over that race.
The Beijing Games are at a different nexus, thanks to both the scale of the Games and the host nation’s position as what’s arguably America’s preeminent geopolitical adversary. China is all over American news coverage of global events and the subject of bipartisan consensus as a threat to the country. It’s been a major presence in U.S. sports media for several years, too, and has lately become a wedge for conservative media to use, often in bad faith, against NBA players who protest anti-Black racism but play in a league with extensive business dealings in China. The wide swath of anti-China sentiment in American political discourse is why it was not a surprise when NBC took time to mention the government’s ongoing genocide against Uyghurs during its opening ceremony coverage. That was some heavy hitting for a network whose sports commentators during NFL games throw their backs out to avoid anything that might cast the league or its players in a bad light. (Sexual assault allegations, in this world, become “some off-the-field stuff.”) On the one hand, the ceremony was a hybrid production between NBC’s sports and news divisions, who of course would handle serious events differently. On the other hand, the NFL and the Olympics are both business partners with NBC as a whole.
The sheer tonnage of the Chinese government’s behavior, and at the Games specifically, makes it even harder to view the Olympics as a stand-alone entity here. The Games have become ground zero for the Chinese Communist Party’s public relations campaign to bury a sexual assault allegation that Peng Shuai, a now-former Chinese tennis star, made against a party power broker involved in the preparation for the Games. Another Chinese competitor, American-born freestyle skier Eileen Gu, gave some credence to that effort in what seemed like a well-coached interview answer. Gu is just 18 years old, but it seems that everybody around the Games is playing geopolitics. The United States and European allies are doing it via a diplomatic boycott. China and Russia did it when their leaders met in Beijing on the eve of the Olympics to discuss Ukraine. Then Vladimir Putin appeared at the opening ceremony, where China trotted out a Uyghur athlete to light the Olympic torch.
The Olympics’ exposure to the real world extends to the pandemic, which appears to be more or less over if you watch a U.S. sporting event on TV but is a more visible presence at the Olympics. The seating areas at events are nearly empty but for a few local fans, and China has issued a directive to clap rather than cheer. Masks are aplenty. Some prominent athletes, including American bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor and figure skater Vincent Zhou, have needed to isolate due to positive COVID tests, taking them out of prominent roles they’d been meant to play in the broadcasts. In Meyers Taylor’s case, that prevented her from serving as a U.S. flag-bearer at the opening ceremony as she had been slotted to do, and for Zhou, it forced him to drop out of the men’s singles competition, despite being a potential medal contender, before Tuesday’s short program. A number of the Winter Olympic sports happen to be ones where on-site crowds are far from the action and can’t make much discernible noise anyway—like in the excellent snowboard slopestyle event, for instance—but there is a dreariness that comes from major competitions with few spectators and little noise. There’s a reason TV networks piped in crowd noise during the crowdless American sports year of 2020: Even people watching on TV like to feel like they’re watching a spectacle. If that requires separating them from reality with artificial people sounds, then so be it. Sitcoms with studio audiences and laugh tracks do the same thing. NBC did not add crowd noise for Tokyo after using it for the 2020 NFL season, and I haven’t noticed any this week.
Think whatever you will about any of it, but the line between the Beijing Olympics and a bunch of more important events is verging on nonexistent. The Beijing Games are the purest, most uncut version of a (correct) worldview that says sports and the things happening around them cannot be separated. The events at issue here are a pandemic that has killed millions of people, an in-progress genocide at the hands of the host, and nations pointing guns and sanction threats at one another. Some people would rather watch a lower-stakes reality show. Others would rather watch the world’s best winter-sport athletes show off their crafts at the highest level on behalf of their countries. That’s hard to begrudge, too.
An open question is whether future presentations of the Games will break down these walls in the same way. The pandemic will hopefully abate one day, and that will breathe some life back into the festivities, which also lacked in Tokyo. The next few Olympic sites are in democratic countries that are not currently committing genocide (France, Italy, the United States), though we’ll see how America is doing on the small-d democratic front by the time the Los Angeles Games arrive in 2028. That will all mean less media coverage about the ethics of the Games being hosted where they are, but it’s not as if the Olympics can slide into a silo even then. The Games have long been controversial, especially in recent years with rising awareness about the environmental, displacement, and corruption issues that crop up in seemingly every host nation. Democratic countries can make their own Olympic problems for those who live in them, and the International Olympic Committee is not suddenly going to become a noncorrupt, upstanding organization. Even if it wanted to, its weak response to the Peng allegation demonstrated its lack of any real spine.
Maybe the tent will go back up, and the Olympics will be able to pass themselves off as a special event free of externalities or moral considerations. But for now, the Games’ nonsports elements have blown through much of their usual cover. Sunday is the Super Bowl, played between two teams owned by billionaire cartoon villains, staged in a stadium named after a company that profits off student loan debt. There probably won’t be a raft of stories about the moral rot I’m contributing to by making a hot chicken salad and watching the game with friends. There will just be whispers about the extracurriculars, but they won’t be part of the main program. The thing about the Beijing Olympics is that nothing about it whispers. It screams.