Dear would-be Winter Olympians: Don’t go. Please don’t go.
On Feb. 4, China, the International Olympic Committee, and NBC will open the Winter Olympics while trying to pretend China is not operating concentration camps that imprison members of the Uighur ethnic minority, subjecting some to forced sterilization; has not wrecked civil liberties in Hong Kong; and has not silenced one of its own star athletes, tennis player Peng Shuai, after she accused a top Chinese government official of sexual assault.
Don’t expect much attention to be paid to the environmental costs of all that fake snow, either.
China, the IOC, and NBC will do all this pretending for you, Olympians. Not for your benefit, mind you, but because they need you. They need you to show up.
NBCUniversal paid $7.5 billion to the IOC for the rights to broadcast the Olympics from 2022 through 2032. The network has reportedly sold out the ad space, and IOC “partners” like Coca-Cola, Toyota, Visa, Bridgestone, and Procter & Gamble want your gauzy stories to sell their products.
China, of course, wants a huge public relations boost.
But none of this can happen without you. You are the meat in the grinder of a giant entertainment-industrial complex. Without you, there wouldn’t be much of a US TV audience to justify all that money. So if you were to begin feeling a little uncomfortable skiing, skating, or curling on the backs of innocent people imprisoned for the crime of being who they are and you decided not go, you could force the IOC to stop abetting the trampling of human rights.
You have the power.
In 1936, before the Berlin Summer Olympics, American athletes debated whether to participate in an Olympics hosted by a racist, oppressive Nazi Germany. The Nazis had passed the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, giving Jewish persecution the phony patina of legality. A movement in the United States, and in other countries, agitated for a boycott of the games. NAACP chief Walter White implored Jesse Owens, the greatest American athlete of his generation, not to go, saying any athlete participating “will unquestionably live to regret his participation.”
The anti-Semitic head of the US Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, who later ran the IOC itself, accused those campaigning for a boycott of fomenting a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”
The boycott failed and the games proved to be a boon for Nazi Germany’s international reputation. (The IOC has a great tolerance for fascists. For 30 years, it was led by Juan Antonio Samaranch, an unrepentant follower of Spanish dictator and mass murderer Generalissimo Francisco Franco.)
The IOC awarded the 1980 summer games to Moscow while the Soviet Union ran a string of forced-labor gulags to punish political prisoners. The US government boycotted those games, not because of the gulags but because the Soviet government invaded Afghanistan. The boycott didn’t accomplish much other than disappointing athletes, which soured governments on the idea of boycotting Olympics.
Times are different now. Though President Biden has stated he might impose a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games, nobody watches the games to see diplomats. They watch to see you. Your boycott, one you volunteer for, not one that’s imposed on you, would have deep meaning.
You owe nothing to the Olympics. The Olympics business has shown you what it thinks of you. The United States Olympic Committee failed repeatedly to protect athletes from sexual abuse, choosing to protect its own cash stream instead. The IOC lurches from one scandal to another, never putting the athletes’ welfare and thriving first.
This week’s tragicomedy of the IOC helping to paper over Peng’s disappearance is the latest example.
So do it yourselves. The Women’s Tennis Association has just shown the way by refusing to hold events in China, at least for now.
Meaningful change requires sacrifice, and if you decide not to go to Beijing, you’ll be sacrificing a big stage. But most of you are pros now. Those of you in the marquee sports, like skiing, figure skating, and hockey, will still have those marquees, and also lucrative sponsorship deals and big social media followings earlier generations did not have. And the Olympics are far from the only stage. Skiers will go on to Germany, Norway, Slovenia, and France on the World Cup tour. Skaters, bobsledders, and lugers will still have international seasons, too.
You’ll miss winning Olympic medals. But if you stand up for your fellow athlete Peng and for the Uighurs and human rights, you’ll have what the 1936 Olympians missed: the chance to win the respect and admiration of millions and the power of telling the IOC and NBC that they will never again be able to mount a showbiz extravaganza on the bones of human beings.
Brian Alexander has written about the Olympics for Outside magazine. He is the author, most recently, of “The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town.”