Justin Branum: The 2020 Tokyo Olympics showed our resiliency, allowing the 2022 Beijing Olympics to go as scheduled would be a denial of human rights

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In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, activists wearing masks of the IOC President Thomas Bach and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose in front of the Olympic Rings during a street protest against the holding of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in Dharmsala, India. The IOC has declined several recent requests to move the Olympics out of Beijing. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, although held a year later than originally scheduled, showcased a level of perseverance that had never before existed on the world stage. Despite Tokyo being in a state of emergency and under a quasi-lockdown for the duration of the games due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapidly spreading Delta variant, the games went on as smoothly as one could imagine, given the circumstances. Only 29 out of the over 11,000 athletes were forced out of the games due to a positive COVID-19 test, a number far lower than what organizers projected. The games provided us with many memorable moments, such as Simone Biles bringing her mental health issues to the forefront and showing the world that “it’s OK to not be OK,” Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel leading Team USA’s continued dominance in the pool, and Alyson Felix overcoming a traumatic pregnancy to become the most decorated American Track & Field Olympian of all-time. Under most circumstances, we would have a roughly 18-month wait for the Winter Olympics, but due to the postponement of the Tokyo Games, the 2022 Beijing Olympics are set to begin in under 200 days. It is in this period where we must decide just how far we are willing to go in the protection of human rights.

The proverbial elephant in the room surrounding the 2022 event is the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province at the hands of the increasingly powerful Chinese Communist Party. The treatment, categorized as a genocide by both former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, has included rape, forced labor, indoctrination, forced abortion, and sterilization. As a result, a bipartisan coalition including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), Chair of the House Rules Committee Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), and former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley (R) have called for a boycott of the games over China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

Calls in favor of boycotting the games have not only stemmed from China’s treatment of the Uyghurs but also from China’s shady actions in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and a rise in questions regarding the origin of the virus. Former Director of National Intelligence Dan Ratcliffe (R) called for a boycott of the games due to his belief that China covered up the origins of the virus after it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A report recently released by the House Foreign Affairs Committee GOP lends credence to Ratcliffe’s claim, coming to the conclusion that COVID-19 likely leaked from the laboratory. The report also notes that a number of athletes from Western countries returned home from the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan in October of 2019 with symptoms one would now associate with COVID-19. These athletes’ infections fell nearly two months before the first COVID-19 infection was reported to the World Health Organization by the Chinese Communist Party. Fittingly, this event was the last time China hosted a major international athletics competition.

With the introduction of numerous bipartisan bills calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in both chambers of Congress, it is clear that there is a significant appetite for taking action related to the games. While a boycott is the most popular call surrounding the games, history has shown that a boycott of the games does not always have the intended consequences. First, politicians and the federal government have no formal decision in whether the United States boycotts the Olympics—that decision lies solely in the hands of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC). In 1979, President Jimmy Carter launched an intense pressure campaign on the USOPC to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The issue quickly became domestic political fodder in the United States, becoming a contentious issue in the ongoing 1980 Republican Presidential Primary with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush both taking mixed stances on the issue while arguing that a USOPC refusal to boycott the games would be a sign of Carter’s weak leadership. 

The USOPC eventually endorsed a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games and was joined by sixty-four other countries, including China, in not attending the games. The boycott ended with no change regarding the Soviet’s invasion of Afghanistan—they would remain in the nation until 1989. The Soviets suffered minimal national embarrassment, and the games still went on with eighty nations participating. While the Soviets suffered little, the would-be Olympians of the boycotting nations suffered significantly. Statistically, nearly 75% of Olympians only participate in one Olympic Games, leading many to see their one opportunity to live out their dreams crushed in an instant by the boycott. A 2020 documentary from the Washington Post detailed the heartbreaking stories of the “invisible Olympians” who likely would have made up Team USA at the 1980 Olympic Games.

With the failure of the United States’ only previous boycott of an Olympic Games, it is clear that a similar boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games would likely meet a similar fate. A significant number of nations would likely still attend the games, allowing for the Chinese Communist Party to still conduct a full slate of Olympic events and festivities. With rising COVID-19 cases across the globe, uncertainty over future variants, questions surrounding China’s handling of the early days of the pandemic, and China’s horrendous treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, it is clear that the 2022 Olympics must be relocated and reorganized into a multi-site and multi-national event.

Planning and carrying out an Olympic Games is a tremendous task that takes over a decade, as evidenced by the ongoing planning of the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane, Australia. With less than 200 days until the scheduled start of the games, finding a location with the suitable facilities to plan and host an Olympic Games on the fly, in the middle of a pandemic, is impossible. Asking a handful of nations across the world to host an event or two each is doable, with all of the athletes gathering together for opening and closing ceremonies to stay true to the Olympic spirit of unity and camaraderie through the bond of athletics. Not only would a multi-national event relieve the burden of planning to host thousands of athletes over a nearly-three week period, but it would also keep alive the dreams of those athletes, all of whom have faced adversity over the past eighteen months, having to adapt their training regiments to align with the ever-changing guidelines of a society facing a pandemic.

Finally, this adaption would allow the United States to make a bold and defiant stand on the international stage in the name of human rights, making it clear to the Chinese Communist Party that they will face no acceptance on the international stage so long as they continue to violate the basic human rights of the Uyghur Muslims. The relocation of the games would pressure Qatar, the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, to make changes in their human rights stances as well in advance of the late 2022 event, with the nation known for its deprivation of fundamental human rights and state-sanctioned violence against working-class individuals, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, and children. We came together over the past year to face the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in the record-breaking development of numerous highly effective and internationally available vaccines; it only makes sense to unite as a world and force the International Olympic Committee to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in defense of human rights. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “silence becomes cowardice when occasion demands speaking out the whole truth and acting accordingly;” it is time we speak up and act accordingly.

Justin Branum is a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ Boyd School of Law. He recently graduated from the University of Alabama with a MA in American Studies, with his research focusing on the intersection between politics and sports.