Mimi Milligan ’24
As the situation in China’s Xinjiang province grows increasingly dire, pundits in the United States and beyond have entertained and debated a bevy of questions. Is what is happening in China a genocide? Has the news been dramatized by anti-communist conservative politicians? Or, does President Biden and the Democratic Party need to do more against this international travesty?
It is my hope that readers of the Tripod are also readers of world news and are familiar with the plight of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Islam-practicing, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group living in western China. Alongside other minority populations living in China, the Uyghurs have been subject to imprisonment in concentration camps, forced sterilizations, and systemic rape. These human rights abuses have been condemned by the international community as well as both the Biden and Trump administrations.
The 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, and another question emerges. Should countries be sending their athletes to Beijing? Does doing so constitute tacit support of the Chinese government?
This question is nearly as old as the modern Olympics themselves, which were first held in Athens in 1896. Throughout the twentieth century, international participants have weighed the pros and cons of sending their athletes to countries marred in controversy. The United States hesitated—but ultimately sent—a delegation to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter withdrew American involvement in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. This political decision has been roundly criticized since. But, by that logic, does this mean we should celebrate President Roosevelt’s decision to legitimize Hitler’s government and pour money into the Nazi economy back in 1936?
My point is, the always-changing location of the Olympics will continue to cause problems for as long as we hold the games. Our critiques of modern-day China or Soviet Russia could even reasonably be expanded to the undeniable and inequitable injustices that plague our own country. 2022 will only continue to bring sports-related controversy, as calls have already been made to boycott the FIFA World Cup in Qatar for its inhumane treatment of the workers who built the city’s massive stadium. In a somewhat related story, the MLB has decided to move its all-star game from Atlanta in protest of Georgia’s new laws that restrict voting access.
At this intersection of politics and sports, columnist Nicholas Kristoff at The New York Times has offered a lackluster solution to the question of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. He suggests in his recent article that individual athletes can take it upon themselves to make their own political statements about human rights abuses in China. For a writer who reported on the scene at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Kristoff has odd ideas about what little-known athletes from around the world will feel comfortable critiquing about China on Chinese soil. Celebrities such as Katy Perry, Gigi Hadid, and Maroon 5 have all been banned from entering China for reasons including vague support of Taiwan (Perry), racially offensive gestures (Hadid), and tweeting “happy birthday” to the Dalai Llama (Maroon 5). Kristoff’s suggestion that Olympic athletes—most not benefiting from the power that comes from “household name” status—should use their already limited platforms to voice their private concerns about the situation in Xinjiang while in Beijing is close to absurdity.
Additionally, the problems facing China—and our American lens that colors our understanding of these problems—are simply too nuanced for the world of sports. It is easy for Americans to criticize China, but it is far from the only nation in the world that commits human rights abuses. This begs the question, is any country really worthy to host an event such as the Olympics or the World Cup?
The Olympics should be held in a singular, apolitical location. The summer Olympics could be held in Greece, for example, where the games first began. This would provide a simple end to all debates on controversy as well as limit support of undeserving governments. This could also put an end to the widespread razing of entire towns to create massive stadiums that sit empty after its two or three weeks of use. In 2008, Beijing sacrificed many of its ancient “hutong” neighborhoods to make way for an Olympic venue. In 1996, Atlanta evicted much of its working-class populations to host the Olympics. There is no good reason for such levels of destruction year after year.
Instead of placing the burden on athletes to issue political statements on highly complex issues, it is time for the International Olympic Committee to pick a spot and stick to it.