Olympic Boycotts Put China In a Quandary

On Monday, the White House announced that American officials will boycott the Beijing Olympics in February over China’s human-rights record. Australia, Canada and the U.K. soon joined in. Other democracies will likely follow. Predictably, China has promised “resolute countermeasures.”

Whatever those might be, the U.S. has little to fear. China’s global athletic ambitions leave it no choice but to continue engaging the rest of the world on the field of play.

For decades, China has used international sporting events to project its rise at home and abroad. Those efforts didn’t amount to much until the International Olympic Committee voted in 1979 to allow China to participate in the games (a single Chinese athlete had competed in 1952). Five years later, a Chinese team arrived at the Los Angeles games under the slogan “Break out of Asia and advance on the world.” The phrase hinted at China’s bold ambitions, and the team ended the games a surprising fourth in the medal table.

Since then, China’s investment in sports has only grown. In the Communist Party’s view, hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing underlined not only China’s arrival, but the political cohesion that would be essential to its continued rise. Even 13 years later, backhanded comparisons between those games and subsequent Olympics (and the governments responsible for them) are common in Chinese news coverage, social media and street-corner conversations.

Yet this sports nationalism isn’t absolute, especially when it threatens the country’s ability to compete in the world’s preeminent games. At this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, two Chinese athletes wore Chairman Mao pins during a medal ceremony, likely violating the IOC’s prohibitions on political expression. China’s state media initially celebrated the gesture — but after the IOC launched an investigation, censors edited out the pins from broadcasts and the Chinese Olympic Committee quickly promised that such displays wouldn’t happen again.

Pragmatism over patriotism also explains China’s willingness to seek foreign help to improve its athletes. Imported foreign coaches are increasingly commonplace, especially in sports in which China has yet to succeed internationally. It’s also common for China to send prized athletes abroad for training, including to American universities. Ever since Yao Ming was drafted into the NBA in 2002, China has helped its sports stars compete in top professional settings overseas.

Even on more sensitive matters, practicality usually prevails. When an NBA team executive tweeted support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement in 2019, China reacted furiously, pulling the league’s valuable broadcasts from state-run television and private streaming services. Two years later, the government is quietly relenting in the face of the league’s immense popularity — and the awkward prospect that Chinese players might aspire to compete in a banned league.

In 2019, China’s ruling state council issued an “Outline for Building a Leading Sports Nation,” which envisioned the country becoming a “modern sports power” like the U.S. by 2050. To get there, it called for boosting China’s global competitiveness, national physical fitness and domestic sports industry. Yet it also highlighted a quandary: Each of those goals requires engagement with international athletes, coaches and organizations who might say something offensive about China. Disengaging would only hurt Chinese athletes, sponsors and fans.

It’s a frustrating position for the authorities. For the past half-decade, they’ve prioritized national self-sufficiency in everything from semiconductors to soybeans. But there’s no realistic way for China to “decouple” its athletes from global leagues and competitions. Local alternatives won’t be enough.

That appears to be dawning on Chinese companies, if not the government. Last week, after the Women’s Tennis Association expressed concern for Peng Shuai — the Chinese tennis star who had accused a former government official of sexual assault — the streaming platform iQiyi Inc. asked that its logo be removed from the group’s website. It did not, however, seek to sever its lucrative digital-rights agreement. Quite likely, iQiyi is hoping that the controversy will pass and it can resume building tennis into one of the country’s most popular sports.

China is likely to take a similarly symbolic approach to the diplomatic boycott. For now, it can’t afford to alienate American broadcasters and global sponsors. It certainly can’t risk cutting off its athletes from world-class training and competition. For China, the games must go on.

Author: Adam Minter, Bloomberg

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