China Global Podcast:

The 2022 Winter Olympics, Calls for Boycotts, and the Role of Sports in China

December 21, 2021

You can read a transcript of this podcast below or by clicking here

Next February, the 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Beijing, the venue of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Preparation for the Games is well underway and China has said that it looks forward to welcoming the athletes; but due to the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing has banned foreign spectators, as did Japan when it hosted the 2020 Summer Olympics.

As the 2022 Olympics near, several countries, including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and Lithuania, have announced a diplomatic boycott of the competition and others may do so as well. So far, all countries will allow their athletes to compete. The diplomatic boycotts are a response to concerns about China’s human rights practices, especially in Xinjiang, where at least one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have been subject to involuntary detention in what China labels “reeducation camps.” Countries have very limited leverage over Chinese domestic human rights practices, and some argue that the Olympics provides a rare opportunity to voice the international community’s concerns in a way that could shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations. In an August 2021 survey, just under half of Americans stated that they believe China’s human rights record should prevent it from hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, while 33 percent were uncertain.

Please note that this podcast was recorded just prior to the Biden administration’s announcement that it would not send officials to the Olympic Games.

Bonnie Glaser talks with Susan Brownell about the upcoming Olympics and, more broadly, about the role of sports in China and what the Olympics means to the Chinese people and to the Chinese Communist Party. Dr. Susan Brownell is a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She was a Fulbright Senior Researcher at Beijing Sport University and competed on the Chinese track and field team at the Chinese National College Games in 1986. She is also the author of Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic. 

More Episodes of China Global

China’s rise has captivated and vexed the international community. From defense, technology, and the environment, to trade, academia, and human rights, much of what Beijing does now reverberates across the map. China Global is a new podcast from the German Marshall Fund that decodes Beijing’s global ambitions as they unfold. Every other week, host Bonnie Glaser will be joined by a different international expert for an illuminating discussion on a different aspect of China’s foreign policy, the worldview that drives its actions, the tactics it’s using to achieve its goals—and what that means for the rest of the world.

BONNIE GLASER: I'm Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. In this episode of China Global, we're going to discuss China’s sports and the upcoming Olympic Games. Next February, the 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to be held in Beijing. The city was previously the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Preparation for the games is well underway, and China has said it looks forward to welcoming the athletes, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing has banned foreign spectators, as did Japan when it hosted the 2020 Summer Games. As the 2022 Winter Games near, several countries, including the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, have announced a diplomatic boycott of the Games. So far, all countries will allow their athletes to compete. The diplomatic boycotts are a response to concerns about Chinese human rights practices, especially in Xinjiang, where at least 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities have been subjected to involuntary detention in what China calls “reeducation camps.” Countries have very limited leverage over Chinese domestic human rights practices. And some people argue that the Olympics provides a rare opportunity to voice the international community’s concerns in a way that could shine a spotlight on China’s human rights violations. In a survey taken in August 2021, just under half of Americans believe that China’s human rights record should prevent it from hosting the Winter Olympics in 2022. While 33% were uncertain, please note that this podcast was recorded just prior to the announcement by the Biden administration that they would not send officials to the Olympic Games. We're going to discuss the upcoming Olympics, but we also want to talk more broadly about the role of sports in China and what the Olympics means to the Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party. I'm delighted to have with us Dr. Susan Brownell, who's a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Dr. Brownell’s experience and expertise makes her uniquely qualified to discuss this issue. She was a Fulbright senior researcher at the Beijing Sport University and competed on the Chinese track and field team at the Chinese national college games in 1986. Moreover, she's the author of a book entitled “Training the Body for China: Sports in the Moral Order of the People’s Republic.” Welcome to the China Global podcast, Susan.

SUSAN BROWNELL: Thank you. I'm so happy to have the opportunity to talk with you and your audience today.

GLASER: I want to start by asking about the process for bidding to host the Games. Apparently, Beijing won its bid against Almaty, Kazakhstan, in 2015. And I came across an article in The New York Times that called it one of the strangest Olympic bidding races in memory, though Beijing was considered a favorite, of course, because it had received so much praise for its successful 2008 Olympics. So what is the bidding process for hosting the games and what was so particularly strange about this one?

BROWNELL: Well, the bidding process has been altered since that time to avoid what happened then. But what happened at that point in time was that, as usually happens several years before the cities have to officially submit their bid applications, a number of cities had expressed interest. And there were cities in Poland and Austria, Switzerland, Germany. But as the time came to actually submit the bid, the public began to express its voice in those countries. And in some there were actually public referenda. And they all sort of dropped out until the only one left was Oslo, Norway. And then, as the process proceeded, the leading party lost power, and another one, you know, took its place. And that party was then opposed to hosting the Games and they withdrew the bid. So the result was that there were no European cities left, and the only two cities left were Almaty and Beijing. And there was a furor, at least in the international, you know, the Western media, which said, we have only two dictatorships left, so that that was the issue at that point, where publics were expressing their viewpoints. They were expressing opposition to hosting the Games with the result that you had two countries in which the public are not so free to express their viewpoints.

GLASER: So in 2008 the Summer Games that China held then was widely reported and referred to as China's coming out party, but this year, many years later, is viewed very differently. So how would you describe the difference between the 2008 Summer Olympics and the upcoming games? And what's the significance of these 2022 Olympics for Beijing?

BROWNELL: In 2008, China itself had basically said, “This is our coming out party,” and they had invested a lot of political importance in those games. So the world sort of sat up and took notice. So in a sense, I do think China injected a new level of importance into the Olympic Games greater than they had had before. But I personally thought that that was China's coming out party, and that it did symbolize that China was, on the one hand, rising as a superpower and on the other hand, taking its place as a sort of normal member of the international community. I didn't expect this Winter Games to incite the furor that it has. Because on the one hand, Winter Games just are not nearly as big as Summer Games. So they usually aren't as politically contentious. And then on the other hand, I thought China's already had its coming out party. But this, it does appear that this Olympic Games is going to be just as contentious as the Games in 2008. And really, it's probably because of two major issues that have become big news. And the one is the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the other is the repression going on in Hong Kong.

GLASER: So competing, and of course, successfully competing in athletic competitions at the international level is really important for the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese performance has just been stellar in the recent Games. And that's, of course, in part because China invests vast resources in its training for its national athletes. So why is international sports success so important for the Chinese Communist Party?

BROWNELL: There's really a very long history of sports having a lot of political importance in East Asia generally. And also in China, it goes all the way back to the fact that China—that East Asia was the first world region to have its own regional games. And that was the Far Eastern Championships, which were initiated in the early 20th century. And already at that point, you know, Japan was occupying parts of China, and there were huge political controversies even then. And so fast forward to 1949 and the revolution in China, the Communist Party comes to power, it was embargoed by the United States, it was excluded from the United Nations, normal diplomatic channels were not open to it. And so sports were one of the few channels where it could be involved in, sort of put its case forward internationally. And that led to ping pong diplomacy, basically, in the 1970s, which was a sort of happenstance that, you know, came together simply because the sports world was an alternative channel where China could do things like invite a table tennis team to the United States. And they capitalized on that. And of course, it was very successful. This is the 50th anniversary, by the way, of ping pong diplomacy, though, so there have been a lot of celebrations in China. And a lot of people don't realize that in addition to the exchanges between the United States and China, there were also table tennis invitationals held in Beijing that brought in Asian, African, and Latin American countries, many of which did not have diplomatic relations with China. China just has this long history of using sports diplomacy to put forward, you know, its agendas, and use that rather successfully in 2008. You know, one thing that was not very well covered in 2008, was that probably there were more powerful and influential overseas Chinese invited to Beijing and fêted in Beijing, you know, probably more than had ever been brought together in one place. So I'm sure that China would have liked to do the same thing in 2022. Unfortunately, for them, the COVID pandemic is preventing them from being able to bring in foreign VIPs because they're very good at bringing in VIPs and entertaining them lavishly.

GLASER: What was it like to participate on a Chinese team compared to being on an American team and what was it like to train with them?

BROWNELL: I was very lucky to have that opportunity to even participate paid on the Chinese college team. I represented Beijing city because in those days, foreigners could not easily live in the same house with Chinese people. But I lived with my teammates at a two-and-a-half-month training camp. It was still old-style communist discipline, you know, military-style discipline, we got up at six o'clock, we had roll call, we practiced our marching on the sports field for the opening ceremony. And that was all completely new to me. Needless to say, particularly goose stepping, I had never learned to goose step and my teammates were quite amused at my style. And, you know, in fact, they were surprised that I didn't know how to goose step because they had learned that, you know, in primary school, starting in primary school for their entire school careers, so that part of it was a bit different. On the other hand, you know, the coaching was, I would say, extremely high level because of the centralized system for training coaches, and my coaches were all graduates of the Beijing Sport University. So that part of it was really surprisingly advanced and high quality. The facilities were terrible, though. I mean, I had to learn, I had to run on a dirt track for the first time in my life I, I had old-fashioned leather spikes, like you see in the Chariots of Fire, the movie with, you know, big, long metal spikes to dig into the dirt. And, yeah, that was like going back several decades in time for me.

GLASER: I want to get a little bit of history here about politics and the Olympics. There's obviously been prior examples of sanctions and boycotts being imposed. And it'd be interesting to hear whether any of these punitive actions in the past have had any impact and what lessons we're drawing from them.

BROWNELL: I think that probably the anti-apartheid effort is the only Olympic boycott effort that arguably had some impact, at least that's what people say, I'm sure the end of apartheid in South Africa had a lot of factors. But it is said that South Africa is a sports-crazy country and exclusion from international sports was a difficult thing for it to take, and that did exert pressure that helped to bring about the end of apartheid. The other two boycotts that are generally regarded as a catastrophic failure are the 1980 and 1984 boycotts. You know, President Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. And, of course, the Soviet Union stayed in Afghanistan for 10 more years, nothing changed, athletes lost their chance to compete in the Olympics. You know, one of whom was Thomas Bach, the current president of the International Olympic Committee, who lost his chance to defend his gold medal in team foil. So the feeling about 1980 is basically it was a bad idea. And then the United States turned around and invaded Afghanistan, you know, a few decades later. And that really made it look a bit hypocritical. So you know, on the one hand, you've got apartheid and sports’ role in that, maybe some success. But then on the other hand, you have the United States-led boycott in 1980, which I think at least sports insiders regard as an epic failure.

GLASER: So as you know, the Biden administration has labeled what is taking place in Xinjiang a genocide. Others use the term crimes against humanity. The Chinese, of course, deny that either of these is taking place. But what do you think is the case for a boycott or moving the games out of Beijing, which it's probably too late to do, but could have been considered earlier? You know, what's the argument for and against and where do you come down in this debate?

BROWNELL: Well, I think it's important to point out that boycotts today are different from the Cold War boycotts. So we don't actually have heads of state and national Olympic Committees threatening to keep athletes from attending the games, and those are the two people and entities that have the power to make that decision. And that's actually been the case ever since the end of the Cold War. So the calls for boycotts are now coming from civil groups and in particular from non-governmental advocacy groups. I personally am opposed to boycotts. I was an athlete in 1980; I competed in the 1980 US Olympic trials in the pentathlon, I got seventh, the top three made the team, but already we knew we wouldn't be going to Moscow. And I remember that, in discussions among athletes, that action had basically led to cynicism that had made athletes feel that or realize that we were just pawns for our government. So I don't think that that action really incited a lot of American patriotism. And I think any current leader in the United States advocating a boycott might well think about the effect on their own reputation, because it could be that the public also is just not in favor of taking away the chance for athletes to realize their dreams. And there is this question of whether boycotts actually can be politically effective. Anyway, the official position of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee is that they are politically ineffective, and they only harm the athletes. So I personally am from the sports-world perspective, I'm opposed to boycotts. If I were a non-governmental organization, I would actually want the games to take place in Beijing, because it's only because Beijing is hosting these games that they have the media attention that they are getting for their causes. So it actually allows them a much bigger voice in the public, and it gets much bigger publicity for these issues than they would have otherwise. So personally, I think you might as well send the Olympic Games to all the other dictatorships as well, you know, give them to Kazakhstan. I mean, that's if what you want is to exert pressure via media attention, then the way to do it would be to actually award Olympic Games to different cities.

GLASER: There's also a possibility, of course, that the athletes themselves might take some steps during the games to call attention to these human rights violations. And I wonder whether you think that that's likely, we could have athletes standing on a podium, again, getting their awards, and perhaps in an extreme case, unfurling a flag of an independent Xinjiang, or Turkistan, which I think would be extreme, but athletes could do interviews, they could make statements, there is a range of things they could do. So do you think that athletes will do things like that?

BROWNELL: You know, back in 2008, there was the thought that some athletes would do that. And athletes have just not been making these protests in a big way. Ever since then, even in Tokyo, we thought we would have more athletes sort of standing up, for example, for the Black Lives Matter movement, and it didn't happen. So it looks like what happens with athletes is, first of all, they aren't that political to begin with, you know, they may spend their lives looking at a line on the bottom of a swimming pool, or, you know, they have maybe a very narrow experience of life, and perhaps just aren't interested in being political activists. So that may be part of what's going on. But you know, another issue is that they get to the Olympic Games, and their main concern is to focus on their performance and, you know, get the gold medal if they're capable of it. So they perhaps don't want to devote the time and energy, and they probably do have to consider their image. If they have contracts with sponsors, it could be a negative. I think these three things together have combined to result in the fact that actually surprisingly few athletes want to make a statement in the first place. It is worth mentioning, though, that we've had fans that unfurled flags in the stadium or arena and got removed, and so that can happen also.

GLASER: In December 2020, the International Olympic Committee apparently released a human rights strategy that would align the International Games with the United Nations guiding principles, though, I think the policy is not going to be implemented until after these upcoming games in Beijing. Can you explain what you know about the new strategy and how it might affect Olympic games in the future?

BROWNELL: Right, that policy is not effective until the Paris contract in 2024. The host city contract now has a clause that requires the host city to follow the UN guiding principles on human rights. It is worth noting that this is a somewhat narrow definition of human rights and that the main purpose of this clause is to ensure that human rights are respected in those areas over which the organizing committee and the IOC have control. So, national human rights or what's going on in Xinjiang would probably fall outside of that clause; it actually lists specifically the issues that have been the most controversial ones involved in the organization of the event over the last decade. So that's migrant workers, fair labor, the displacement of local populations through mass evictions, discrimination, child safeguarding peaceful assembly, and media freedom. So those are really the concerns of the IOC. And that is really where the host city contract might have a little bit of clout in pressuring a country.

GLASER: We've been talking about the Olympics, which of course are going to be held in Beijing next year in February with Dr. Susan Brownell, who is a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Thanks so much for joining us today, Susan.

BROWNELL: Thanks for the invitation. It's been my pleasure.