Sen. Tom Cotton’s call for the United States to boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, two months from now merits a history lesson – two of them, actually.
Cotton in a press conference Nov. 18 cited two reasons for a complete boycott. One is to protect American athletes from surveillance, DNA harvesting and being taken hostage by the Chinese Communist Party. The other is in response to China’s being what Cotton called a “totalitarian slave state” that mistreats ethnic and religious minorities, cracked down on Hong Kong and “unleashed a plague on the world that has killed millions of people and has disrupted the lives of every American.”
The opening ceremony is Feb. 4, about two months away. President Joe Biden has floated the idea of a diplomatic boycott, meaning American officials wouldn’t attend. Cotton wants to go further and keep the athletes home, too.
Let’s have that first history lesson. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter led the United States to boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. About 60 countries joined the boycott, but not Great Britain or France.
Cotton was 3 years old at the time, so he doesn’t remember it. I do. It was a huge disappointment for the athletes who had trained for years, for their families, for broadcasters and sponsors, and for everybody who wanted to watch the Games. The boycott came months after the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the U.S. hockey team had beaten the Russians. In return for the U.S.-led boycott, the Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles four years later.
The Soviet Union did eventually withdraw from Afghanistan – in 1989. It left for the same reason the United States recently left: They decided it wasn’t worth it. It wasn’t because the United States didn’t send gymnasts to Moscow nine years earlier.
Cotton blamed the Biden administration for failing to work with American allies to host the Games elsewhere, and the Olympic movement for awarding the Games to China.
Let’s have that second history lesson. The International Olympic Committee awarded the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing in July 2015. The president of the United States – at the time, President Barack Obama – had nothing to do with it and could not have changed it. Let’s pretend a president could get the Games moved. President Donald Trump had four years to do it, and he didn’t. In response to a reporter’s question, Cotton declined to criticize Trump after harshly criticizing Biden.
Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee had only one other applicant that year: Almaty, Kazakhstan. The four European candidates competing for the Games dropped out, citing the costs. Here’s part of how the human rights group Amnesty International describes conditions in Kazakhstan in 2020: “The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression remained severely limited. Critics of the authorities faced politically motivated prosecution. Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread.”
Faced with those two choices, the IOC awarded the Games to Beijing by a vote of 44-40.
Instead of a last-minute boycott, two long-term approaches are needed.
First, the Summer and Winter Olympics should be held in the same permanent locations every four years rather than being “awarded” to a host country that then loses enormous amounts of money. The Games should be housed in countries with good human rights records. The sites should be built and maintained through shared international cooperation and expense, and they should be considered almost neutral ground. For the Summer Games, I propose London, where the facilities have already been built, and Switzerland for the Winter Games. Or maybe Switzerland for both.
Second, U.S. policymakers should continue to try to rebalance the relationship with China, which Trump made an effort to do. The trade relationship has opened and modernized China and reduced the chances of conflict between the world’s two great powers. But China is moving backward, and the United States must not be dependent on it for so many of its basic needs.
These changes will take much longer than two months. In the meantime, let the Games begin – in Beijing, regrettably, and hopefully for the last time.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist published in 16 outlets in Arkansas. Email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.