Learning lessons from the horrific Beijing Olympics

The Beijing Winter Olympics have begun. Along with others, I have previously advocated boycotting these games and explaining why a mere “diplomatic boycott” is insufficient. To the list of reasons discussed earlier, such as China’s horrific genocide against the Uyghurs, I would now add the Chinese government’s threats to punish athletes who speak out against its many human rights abuses, and the cruel “zero Covid” that made the Games “a very stressful and almost joyless experience for the athletes and a huge challenge for NBC” and other reporters trying to cover the events.

Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to boycott now. But it is not too late to begin the process of adopting reforms that can prevent such travesties from happening again in the future. Much can be done to prevent the future staging of the Games by brutal authoritarian regimes, and also to eliminate abuses such as the unnecessary theft of taxpayers for Games funding and the forced displacement of homes and businesses in order to build Olympic facilities.

It should be noted that such corruption is a crucial reason why the 2002 Games ended in Beijing in the first place. As ESPN reports, Oslo, Norway’s initial leading bid to host the 2022 Winter Games backed down because the Norwegians couldn’t stand the ridiculous demands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC):

[A]about six months before the final vote, Oslo backtracked. In addition to financial concerns about hosting the Games, Norwegian politicians (and their constituents) have been discouraged by, among other things, alleged demands for IOC benefits during the Olympics. IOC requirements included an audience with the King of Norway and a cocktail for IOC leaders with the Norwegian royal family (paid for by the Norwegian government) as well as “seasonal fruit and cakes” in members’ hotel rooms , mandatory smiles for all IOC newcomers. members of hotel employees, extended hours for hotel bars, and service of Coca-Cola products only. The IOC also called for local schools to be closed during the Games and for residents to be encouraged to go on vacation.

“Norway is a rich country, but we don’t want to spend money on bad things, like satisfying the crazy demands of IOC apparatchiks,” wrote Frithjof Jacobsen, chief political commentator at the VG newspaper. “These insane demands that they be treated like the King of Saudi Arabia will simply not be accepted by the Norwegian public.”

I’ve summarized the Games’ flaws – and how to fix them – in more detail here and here. Below is an updated list of reforms that combine previous ideas (points 1-3) with others (points 4-5) inspired by the 2022 Winter Games:

1. No public subsidies. That the games are funded solely by private organizations and sponsors, as was largely the case with the successful 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. This way, no one has to pay for the games except those who enjoy them and the audience who voluntarily chooses to watch.

2. No forced displacement of residents, private businesses or civil society organizations. We can and must organize sporting events without kicking innocent people out of their homes.

3. No right of accommodation for perpetrators of authoritarian human rights violations. There are many possible Olympic venues that are not controlled by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Denying these types of rulers to harbor rights will not fundamentally change their regimes. But it will at least damage their image and deny them propaganda victories.

4. Freedom of expression must be complete in the Olympic Village and at all other Olympic venues. At the very least, athletes, journalists and spectators should be completely free to criticize the host government and its policies (or any other government for that matter).

5. No “public health” measures should block normal human interaction between athletes, members of the media and residents of the host city. Such measures defeat the purpose of having the Games in a particular city in the first place. If the Games are to take place in a “bubble”, it can be done almost anywhere. Moreover, scientific evidence increasingly shows that lockdowns and other similar restrictions on freedom of movement do little to stop the spread of Covid, while causing enormous harm. But if a city is really too infested with disease to allow normal human interaction, so is it to host the Games.

The details of some of the above will need to be worked out in more detail than I can do in a blog post, especially regarding 4 and 5. For example, it may not be possible to have protections of free speech as broad as those in current United States First Amendment jurisprudence. But it would probably be nice to have the more limited, but still strong, standards that, for example, the Supreme Court of Canada applies under that country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Likewise, some who hate the Beijing Games might not want to go as far as I did with point 5. Here, too, there is room for a reasonable compromise.

How can we force the incredibly corrupt CIO to respect these constraints? It can easily be achieved, if only the liberal democracies of the world demonstrate sufficient political will. I explained how here, although I’m far from optimistic, it will happen anytime soon:

[N]one such idea is likely to be embraced by the notoriously corrupt International Olympic Committee. Time and time again, the IOC has proven that it is prepared to tolerate almost any injustice, as long as the organization and its leaders benefit from it.

But the United States and other liberal democracies can easily impose these reforms simply by making them a condition of future participation in the games. Without the participation of the United States and its allies, IOC revenues would plummet, as the value of broadcast rights would decline massively.

The question is whether the United States and other Western governments have the political will to do what needs to be done. On this point, I am far from optimistic, especially regarding the near future.

I would add that the United States and other democracies can make these demands more credible by threatening to hold their own alternate winter and summer games. This would undermine the objection that boycotts unfairly deprive athletes of the opportunity to compete at the highest level. I suggested a similar strategy to force the IOC to move the 2022 games out of Beijing.

Another possible strategy, suggested by many pundits over the years, is to find permanent venues for winter and summer games (both in liberal democracies) and stick to them. This, of course, would eliminate the expense of choosing new sites and building new facilities each time. And, of course, this is how the ancient Greeks organized the original Olympic Games, which were held at the same site (Olympia) every four years.

It is too late to avoid the travesty that is currently unfolding before the eyes of the world in Beijing. But it’s not too late to learn from past Olympic mistakes and ensure they never happen again.