I’ve been struggling lately with two seemingly conflicting ideas that I support: Getting politics out of sports, and boycotting the upcoming winter Olympics in China. Maybe RealityChek readers can help me out.
I’ve laid out my arguments for making sports a politics-free arena in previous posts (see, e.g., here). I’ll amplify one in particular today: Perhaps now more than ever, Americans need a domain in their cultural and social lives that’s reserved for purely mindless entertainment. Sports seems to be the best candidate, mainly because, unlike any of the arts, it has no substantial political tradition. And the main reason arguably is that music, literature, painting, etc can’t possibly avoid politics consistently if their works seek to make any statements about the human condition.
Of course, lots of art focuses on pleasing our senses and exploring new ways of doing so, and I don’t see how any reasonable person could object. And lots of art that seeks to comment on current issues is completely stupid and/or downright ignorant. But if you oppose the fundamental legitimacy of art that seeks to criticize or praise aspects of the human past, present, and future, or influence our ideas and mores, then you (logically, at least) need to oppose the appearance of much of what’s been the best and most important and most enlightening of human achievements for millennia. And you choke off the possibility of such works and their benefits being created going forward.
Sports, however, lack any such potential. They’re important for keeping us healthy. They can teach important lessons about leadership and cooperation among teammates, the value of hard work, and the like. In their organized forms, they of course should obey the law when it comes to providing equal opportunity. And who could seriously object if those who run professional leagues or sports on the college and university level want to precede society and the law in providing or expanding such equal opportunity to actual and prospective participants either on the playing field or in management, or in nudging society and the law along? And needless to say (I hope!), in their individual capacities, athletes and others in the world of organized sports have the right to express themselves on any issue or matte, political or not, and to engage in politics however actively they wish.
But I’ve also pointed out that today’s athletes or owners or commissioners are hardly lacking for channels and platforms for reaching enormous audiences with their views. As a result, there’s simply no need for them to inject their views into the actual playing or scheduling of athletic contests. Moreover, as I suggested at the start, keeping sporting events politics-free provides Americans with a chance to spend time together having plain old unadultered fun – which surely has major therapeutic effects.
Undoubtedly, some and even many Americans may object to any sphere of their national life being shielded from politics, and especially from the most pressing matters. That’s their right, too – and they can register their objections by staying away from the arenas and stadiums, and turning off their streaming services.
But what about common sports practices like playing the national anthem before contests, or asking politicians to engage in activities like throwing out the first ball or tossing the first coin? Aren’t those political acts? Not the way I see them. Instead, they’re expressions of national unity – which any successful nation or society needs to encourage at least from time to time. In other words, it shouldn’t be seen as too much to ask that spectators and athletes alike spend a few pre-game minutes respecting the flag – or even an elected President or Governor or Mayor of Member of Congress they can’t stand kicking off a contest.
And yet, as also mentioned above, I want the United States to totally boycott the China Olympics slated to start in Beijing on February 4. Partly I support a boycott (or postponing and moving the games) for moral reasons. I’m hardly a world class athlete myself, and so I can’t say that I have any real idea of how much training Olympians have gone through to win the honor of competing in such events. I can say, however, that their dedication to their craft seems especially admirable given how many participate in sports without mass followings, and therefore aren’t expecting to cash in big-time on competing at this level or even on winning. So I haven’t come to my position lightly.
At the same time, do many of these Olympians really relish the prospect of marching in an opening parade past a beaming Xi Jinping, under whose ever ambitious dictatorship China has persecuted and allegedly committed genocide against one of its minority groups, has turned Hong Kong from an outpost of freedom into little more than just another Communist satrap, and is subjecting the entire population of the People’s Republic to a surveillance programs threatening to snuff out what little is left of their private lives? I’d hope many Olympians would be positively ashamed to enhance this thug regime’s global standing.
Partly, I also support a boycott for U.S. foreign policy reasons. As I’ve argued repeatedly, Washington has too often responded to Chinese actions that endanger America’s national security or harm its economy or violate the human rights of the Chinese people with tariffs or sanction or export controls that are episodic and piecemeal in nature. And since the threat China poses is systemic in nature, they’ve by and large failed to protect American interests – much less improve conditions inside the People’s Republic.
It’s true that more sweeping, hard-hitting U.S. retaliation would entail major costs and risks – especially when it comes to countering China’s escalating aggression against Taiwan and elsewhere in its neighborhood. And an Olympic boycott could spur retaliation by Beijing against American businesses operating in China.
But staying away from the games could bring worthwhile gains for U.S. interests, too. Especially if joined by other countries, it would deliver a powerful worldwide propaganda blow to a highly image-conscious regime and its claims of global support and even leadership. As a result, it would also weaken a crucial pillar of its legitimacy with a Chinese public whose culture is also highly face-conscious. Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins has made a compelling argument that similar international condemnation helped bring down South Africa’s apartheid system decades ago.
China is unquestionably in a much stronger position. But national self-respect isn’t a trivial concern for America’s own security, either, and drawing a line at the Olympics seems particularly important at a time when Beijing is throwing its weight around in even the biggest American business circles more overtly and ostentatiously than ever. (See, e.g., here and here.)
But to return to the original question, a boycott would entail injecting politics into sports – which I’ve been opposing. Can I square the circle by claiming that China’s offenses are worse quantitatively and even qualitatively than any of those that have prompted the kind of on-the-field athletes’ protests that I’m against? Or that China is in a class by itself? Maybe. But what about the Arab and Muslim worlds, where an entire gender suffers systematic and often brutal persecution? So boycott any sporting events held there, too? I strongly suspect that treating human rights policy as the standard would make any truly or nearly universal Olympics impossible, especially if other countries began acting on whatever other foreign abuses they perceive. And maybe canning the games at this point is the way to go. But I’m personally not on board with that stance – yet.
The same problem appears to complicate the case that foreign policy considerations tip the balance in favor of a boycott. There’s certainly no shortage of conflicts between and among countries that could trigger any number of similar Olympics-ending boycotts. Which may just be too bad. Or maybe not. Indeed, if America urgently needs a politics-free zone periodically, doesn’t a tumultuous world at large as well?
When it comes to a U.S. boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the answer may lie in our democratic system – and maybe it should. In other words, if, like me, the majority of Americans want a boycott badly enough, they’ll make their feelings known to their leaders, and there’s a good chance the politicians will follow suit. If the public doubts that a China Olympics these days is such a big and abhorrent deal, the athletes will go.
But yours truly will still be feeling pretty conflicted on the sports and politics question – and greatly appreciative for any advice on the way out of my conundrum.