Column: ‘Games must go on’ spiel grows weaker by the day

Jan 20, 2022, 1:55 AM | Updated: 11:26 pm
FILE - A worker labors to assemble the Olympic Rings onto of a tower on the outskirts of Beijing, C...

FILE - A worker labors to assemble the Olympic Rings onto of a tower on the outskirts of Beijing, China on Jan. 5, 2022. The Beijing Winter Olympics are fraught with potential hazards for major sponsors, who are trying to remain quiet about China's human rights record while protecting at least $1 billion they've paid to the IOC. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

The Olympic Charter runs 112 pages and reads like something Gwyneth Paltrow would have written if she were in charge of the Games instead of Goop.

“The goal of Olympism,” the charter reads, “is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

OK, forget about all that high-minded stuff. The International Olympic Committee and their Chinese handlers abandoned any such appeals not long after the bid was awarded in 2015. Forget about all the human-rights abuses in the host nation since then, too. With two weeks left until opening ceremonies, the sales pitch has been pared down to “the Games must go on,” because we all need a diversion right about now.

True enough. What the hosts still won’t say is what they hope to divert your attention from.

To be sure, the Games will go on because … well, because of all the money plowed in beforehand and all the renminbi to be vacuumed up still. They should go on, too, because of all those years of sacrifice by thousands of athletes and officials for their shot at a moment of glory in the glistening winter sun. To deny them that chance, at this late date, serves no one’s purpose.

But if you thought last summer’s Tokyo Olympics were hollowed out, just wait.

In just the past 10 days or so, athletes were threatened by the organizing committee with “certain punishments” for saying or doing anything that would offend their Chinese hosts, which experience suggests could be … literally anything. Several delegations urged anyone headed to Beijing to take “burner” phones instead of their personal devices because of concerns over government spying. Ticket sales to events were canceled, meaning the few spectators the organizing committee allows to attend will be there by invitation only. Even that modest attendance goal won’t be easy in a nation where more than 20 million were under some form of lockdown as China tries to quell a series of COVID-19 outbreaks.

Rushing back to Beijing for another Olympics was a bad idea from the get-go. That was in 2015, when the stink of Russia’s doping-and-corruption-addled Sochi Games still lingered. A half-dozen potential European bidders dropped out, leaving the bid committee with only one other choice. That was Almaty, Kazakhstan, a country every bit as authoritarian but nowhere near as rich. Deservedly, the IOC and China have been on the defensive ever since.

It was China’s bad luck to land the Winter Games in what turned out to be the time of COVID. But the hosts turned those Olympic ideals on their head any number of times since.

The regime in Beijing is enslaving Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province, crushing dissent in Hong Kong, threatening neighboring Taiwan, and was accused recently of “disappearing” tennis star Peng Shuai after she made a sexual assault allegation against a close ally of President Xi Jinping.

Worse, perhaps, the IOC’s involvement has resembled nothing more than the lookout on the crimes-in-progress. They don’t see any abuse and sure won’t talk about it. If anything, the swells in charge and the corporate sponsors who line their pockets have stayed silent and even gone out of their way to help paper over those transgressions — with predictable results.

Six weeks ago, the Biden administration had seen and heard enough to cancel plans to send U.S. diplomats, a move mirrored by several nations since. Not long after that, the NHL cited uncertainty caused by the pandemic to hold back all of its players from the hockey tournament. Earlier this week, NBC said it won’t be sending announcing teams to China, citing the same safety concerns raised when the network pulled most of its broadcasters from the Tokyo Games.

The Olympics have a useful and instructive history, packed with both moments of heroism. Think of American sprint medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising gloved fists at the 1968 Summer Games, or Englishman Derek Redmond blowing out a hamstring midway through a 400-meter semifinal, getting back up and struggling up the track to cross the finish line in his father’s embrace. The first opened our eyes to injustices beyond the track, the second reminded us that striving to finish what we started can be its own reward.

Or, as the Olympic charter frames it: “Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”

There will be no shortage of glorious sports moments on the stage in Beijing. If you want them served up with a side of “social responsibility” and “respect,” you’ll probably want to find something else to watch on TV for those two weeks.


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Column: ‘Games must go on’ spiel grows weaker by the day