“If the United States had known what Nazi Germany would become,” former UN ambassador and 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley asks, “would we have participated in the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics?” Here’s a better question: would boycotting the Olympics have made Nazi Germany any less dangerous? Would it have, in fact, changed the course of history in any way other than rob us of the great legend of Jesse Owens triumphing over the so-called “master race”?
Think on that for a moment, but read Haley’s argument for a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. This is the best argument Haley makes, and it should get careful consideration:
Most of all, we know the Chinese government is guilty of genocide. The United States has officially recognized that Beijing is brutally oppressing the Uighur population in its western province of Xinjiang. There, China has arbitrarily imprisoned more than a million people. They are tortured and compelled into forced labor. Children are taken from their homes.
Women are forced to have abortions and be sterilized, often without knowing it. And rape and sexual abuse are everywhere. As one rape victim tearfully put it, China’s “goal is to destroy everyone.” It’s true: China seeks to stamp out the entire Uighur culture and faith, by any means necessary. China denies it all, but the facts are not seriously in dispute.
All told, more than 12 million Uighurs live in daily fear that they could be imprisoned, tortured or even killed. It is not the Holocaust, for which there is no historical parallel, past or present. But it is still a genocide.
Given Communist China’s direction, it could soon become what Nazi Germany was in the 1940s. It is not a country the United States should glorify through participation in the Winter Olympics.
Haley certainly writes the truth about China’s genocidal ambitions with the Uighurs. The conflict in the Xinjiang region has been ongoing for decades, but the current policies of the Xi Jinping regime have been in place since at least 2017. The International Olympic Committee awarded the Olympiad in 2015, but they have had three-plus years of international outrage over the concentration camps, forced abortions and sterilizations, slave labor, and other genocidal activities in which to pull their event from Beijing and move it elsewhere. They still could do that, although the IOC is not exactly known for its intestinal fortitude, especially when it comes to communists.
Yanking the Olympics altogether might be an effective way to push back against Xi’s travel down Nazi Germany’s path. Boycotts by individual nations not only aren’t effective, they essentially cede the rhetorical ground. Whether or not the US participates, the global media will be on hand to lionize Xi, and our presence could at least provide some counterweight to that.
Although, one has to say that’s aspirational at best. Remember NBC’s disgracefully obsequious coverage of Vladimir Putin and communism by American media at the 2014 Sochi Olympics? Want to bet that NBC/Comcast will be all too anxious to suck up again?
But let’s get back to the core question once again, because we have data points to answer this. Would a US boycott of these games have any effect whatsoever on China’s genocide — or its other depredations, for that matter? No, just as it didn’t have any impact on the Soviet Union when we boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics over the invasion of Afghanistan. And at that time, we led a multi-nation coalition against the Soviets that saw 65 nations refuse to participate. That led the Soviets to, er … stick around in Afghanistan until it bankrupted them nine years later. That occupation was brutal as well, and the Soviets ended up collapsing over it, but the 1980 Olympic boycott had no impact on anything except the athletes.
Four years later, the Soviets boycotted the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and got 14 of its allies to join them. (Romania was a notable exception.) The biggest impact of that was that Southern California had some leftover borscht. Both boycotts were demonstrations of impotence, succeeding at nothing other than proving that the obsession with the Olympics as a platform for political statement is very much overblown.
It did prove one other thing, I should admit. The 1984 Summer Olympics was the most profitable for any city at that time, and might still be to this day. Los Angeles did “prove” that things run better when communists aren’t around. Too bad Californians don’t remember that lesson today. *rimshot* I’m here all week, folks. Try the abalone, it’s delicious.
Haley’s heart is in the right place, but this is not a serious response to the genocide in Xinjiang. A boycott is entirely performative, not substantive. All this will do, just as it did in 1980 and 1984, is punish the athletes while moving policy not one jot or tittle otherwise. If we want to punish China for its Nazi-esque policies, ramp up the trade pressure and hit them in their wallets on a large scale, not just in this one-off in which American money won’t even be a primary consideration for Xi. We don’t need more performative politics, either in foreign or domestic policy — we need substantive politics, where calculations get made on maximum effectiveness on desired policy outcomes. I’d rather do nothing than go out of our way to look spectacularly impotent.