Don't Let the Olympics Become a Stage for National Dramas | Opinion

Let the games begin? After the postponement of Tokyo 2020, the latest iteration of what we think of as a quadrennial sports festival launches less than six months after the last one ended. But with the Winter Games opening in China just 14 years after that country celebrated the Summer Games—making Beijing the only city to host both—the International Olympic Committee rewards a regime whose human rights abuses are only getting worse.

The United States, under both President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden, has officially declared that the Chinese regime is perpetrating genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in the Xinjiang region. And that comes on top of other abuses against Tibetans and Hong Kong dissidents—and even ordinary Chinese citizens who won't toe the Communist Party line.

Perhaps inevitably, these Olympics have become embroiled in national political dramas. Several countries, including the United States, announced a formal "diplomatic boycott," declining to send any officials. President Biden let it be known that he'd still watch the games to cheer on our athletes, a public-relations coup for the Chinese. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, warned athletes not to speak out against the regime.

Broadcasters, for their part, would prefer to pretend that everything is normal. Those of us who just want to catch some hockey or get our once-every-four-years curling or biathlon fix are unlikely to see too much hand-wringing from mainstream news outlets. These giant companies want continued access to the Chinese market, so the corporate titans at their helms don't want to antagonize Beijing.

In December, longtime NBC host Bob Costas told National Review's Jim Geraghty that—between the rights, travel, equipment and lodging—the network spends more than a billion dollars on Olympics coverage, so it simply can't risk that Chinese censors would pull the plug entirely. "Even if they were to simply acknowledge what the issues are, let along take a strong editorial position on those issues," Costas said, "it's entirely possible that the Chinese could cut the feed."

It's a tricky situation. How do we lose ourselves in the luge without traveling down the slippery slope to appeasement? It's up to us to make a conscious separation between the sports and the spoils, to avoid turning the Olympics into a stage for national dramas at the expense of individual athletic achievement.

Commentators often lament the passing of a purer age, when a medal brought national glory rather than celebrity endorsement contracts. That attitude, along with politicians' discomfort that the games may somehow legitimize human rights abuses, is based on a distorted view of Olympic history. It forgets the values of the original games, among which were the dominance of the personal over the national, the economic over the political and athletics over concerns of state.

The modern games often allowed politics to overshadow sports. Adolf Hitler, who staged the 1936 Berlin games, was famously taken in by a vision of Olympic nationalism via physical perfection—but his games didn't exactly vindicate his regime.

Political concerns only became more prominent at the Olympics during the Cold War. Mexico City hosted the 1968 games amid the tumult of student uprisings—and police reactions not unlike the Hong Kong crackdown—around the globe. Black Power made its presence felt on the victory podium with a barefoot gloved-fist protest. Subsequent Olympiads reflected the expansion and retrenchment of communism in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, along with guerrilla warfare and counter-revolution in Latin America.

The 1972 games succumbed to the most dastardly terrorism ever visited upon the Olympics, with the murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches in Munich. The 1976 Montreal festival, which left a trail of debt that took decades for Quebec taxpayers to pay off, saw the first of a series of boycotts, this time by 30 African countries protesting apartheid. Tit-for-tat superpower boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles followed.

Olympic rings
BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 07: The Olympic Rings logo are seen on the top of a tower as the sun rises prior to the Women's Freestyle Skiing Freeski Big Air Qualification on Day 3 of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Big Air Shougang on February 07, 2022 in Beijing, China. David Ramos/Getty Images

The ancient games could not have been further from the 20th century's Olympic nationalism. Back then, individualism and athletic prowess were valued more than mere participation, personal wealth superseded ideology, and there were no romantic pledges of peace and brotherhood—armies routinely violated the so-called Olympic truce, including inside the Olympic sanctuary.

Pindar, the lyric poet whose victory odes tell us much of what we know about the early Olympians, wrote at the behest and patronage of wealthy athletes, who sought personal glory rather than the vindication of their city-state and its political system. The great champion Alcibiades used his prestige to gain fame and riches, often at the expense of his "national interest."

Further, the ancient heroes were Panhellenic—Athenian kids had no problem cheering for a Spartan Michael Phelps—and the victors' olive wreaths were intrinsically worth about as much as the medals to be doled out in Beijing.

The 20th century took us through almost continual political upheaval, with most of it defined by the bipolar Cold War mentality and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. But the edifice of pretension eroded after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the games were free to become athletic spectacles again. In place of monumental East-West clashes and massive government training programs, the Olympics became increasingly defined by interpersonal rivalry and the return to a desire for individual fame and lucre.

The Olympics now bring us the absolute best, without regard to color, creed, contract, or the Iron Curtain; foreign mercenaries even populate China's hockey team. The nature of the festival, meanwhile, has returned to the ritual value of the original games. As with all sporting events, the Olympics of the past three decades have become exponentially more entertainment-oriented, rather than any sort of prism for evaluating the host country or its government. Gone are the pretensions of amateurism, as athletes are once more individuals, not (except in places like China) tools of the state.

Tradition, meet meritocracy; Pierre de Coubertin, meet Milton Friedman. Counter the conventional punditry, the symbiotic relationship between sports and society has thankfully returned to the original, messy status it had under the ancient Greeks.

Under today's geopolitical conditions—the need to express a rising nationalism amid global economic interdependence—international athletic competition assumes an ever-more parallel course to that of the world at large. International competitions of all kinds necessarily generate nationalism, but it's generally of a benign kind where, for example, we can appreciate figure skaters formerly known as Russians even if we hope that Americans pull off the upset.

While it's unfortunate that China is hosting this year's Olympics, we can take solace that the CCP will lose money on the endeavor. With a COVID-related ban on fans, it won't even be able to showcase its Potemkin villages. Furthermore, unlike most other nations, the U.S. doesn't have a government sports ministry and taxpayers don't fund athletes. Instead, our Olympic Committee is a federally chartered nonprofit that generates revenue through sponsorships and donations. It has a very American pay-for-performance system, generally funding the sports where the U.S.O.C. can get the most bang for its buck.

In short: spotlight the horrific actions of Chinese authorities, but don't view the competitions through a political lens. And remember that it was the unaccountable grandees of the IOC who created this mess in the first place.

Ilya Shapiro constitutional scholar and author of Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America's Highest Court. He wrote his master's thesis at the London School of Economics on the transformation of the Olympic Games in the post-Cold War era.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.