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Move the Beijing Olympics — or shun them

There was no place for apartheid in the Olympics a generation ago. There should be none for genocide today.

Police officers use sniffer dogs to check on Tiananmen Square before delegates arrive for the opening session of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 5.Andy Wong/Associated Press

In October 1963, the International Olympic Committee announced that unless South Africa abolished its system of racial segregation, its athletes would be barred from the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo. In 1970, the IOC went further, expelling apartheid South Africa from all Olympic competition. The sports world’s boycott of South Africa ultimately lasted 28 years. Not until apartheid’s repeal, in 1991, were the country’s athletes once again invited to participate in Olympic competitions. The first racially integrated South African team competed in the Barcelona Games in 1992.

The IOC was right to ban South Africa. A core purpose of the Olympic movement, spelled out in the Olympic Charter, is “the preservation of human dignity” and “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” To have allowed South Africa’s apartheid regime to take part in the games a generation ago would have made a travesty of everything the Olympics are supposed to represent.


To allow China’s genocidal regime to take part in the games today would be an even greater travesty.

Beijing is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Games. It should not be allowed to do so — not while China’s communist regime is engaged in grotesque violations of human rights and systematic crimes against humanity, including genocide, torture, slave labor, compulsory abortions, religious persecution, cultural oppression, and a brutal antidemocracy crackdown. In an open letter last month, a coalition of 180 human rights organizations implored world governments to boycott the 2022 Games and not let them be used to “embolden” the Chinese government in its “unrelenting crackdown on basic freedom.”

That was what happened in 2008, when the IOC, spurning the pleas of dissidents and activists, permitted Beijing to stage the Summer Games. China, which had never before been awarded the Olympics, avidly sought the propaganda bonanza of hosting the world’s foremost sporting event. The communist regime promised that the games would be a catalyst for internal reform, and international Olympic officials took (or pretended to take) those assurances at face value.


“We are convinced that the Olympic Games will improve human rights in China,” the IOC’s then-president, Jacques Rogge, told an interviewer. They “will have definitely a positive, lasting effect on Chinese society.”

In reality, the effect was exactly the opposite, beginning with the run-up to the 2008 Games themselves. To make room for the construction of Olympic facilities, the government forcibly expelled more than 1.25 million people from their homes. “Citizens who objected were detained, and some were tortured; journalists who told the truth were imprisoned,” Chinese dissident and human rights lawyer Teng Biao recounted in a recent essay.

Because China in 2008 was a key accomplice to Sudan’s genocide in Darfur, the Summer Games that year were dubbed the “Genocide Olympics.” But today China is not merely abetting genocide; it’s also committing it. Its sweeping repression in Xinjiang, where more than 1.5 million Uighur Muslims are imprisoned in a gulag of internment camps and subjected to horrific abuses — systematic rape, involuntary sterilization, the breakup of families, coercive “reeducation,” and government-directed enslavement — has been labeled genocide by two consecutive US secretaries of state, Mike Pompeo and Antony Blinken China’s human rights crimes in 2008 were unspeakable. They are worse today.


Yet the IOC refuses even to contemplate withdrawing the 2022 Olympics from Beijing, insisting that politics should not be allowed to interfere with sports. It turns a deaf ear to the scores of human rights groups pleading that China not be permitted to “sportwash” its record by hosting the world’s most prestigious competition. Awarding the games to a dictatorship, the IOC recently declared, does not mean that it “agrees with the political structure, social circumstances, or human rights standards” in that country. That was what it said in 1936 as well, when it refused to move the Summer Games from Berlin and thereby handed Nazi Germany a massive propaganda victory.

The IOC’s unwillingness to act must not be a pretext for decent people to do nothing.

No athlete should wish to compete in Olympic Games hosted by a totalitarian regime that uses its power to persecute, repress, torture, and kill vast numbers of innocent men and women. No corporation should wish to sponsor such Games. No head of state or government minister should wish to attend them. No media outlet should wish to cover or broadcast them. No sports fan should wish to watch them.

If there was no place in the Olympics for apartheid, surely there can be none for genocide. The 2022 Games must be moved, or they must be shunned.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit