Even as the COVID-19-diminished Summer Olympic Games came to an end in the hot Tokyo summer, the Winter Olympics scheduled for next year in Beijing has become a scorching topic. On July 27, several members of the United States Congress gave an incendiary call to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics. This ill-timed act of political grandstanding is an insult to the Olympic tradition of bringing all countries, including rivals, together for a round of peaceful competition.
Due to the pandemic-induced one-year delay of the Tokyo Games, the Winter Olympics will follow the Summer Olympics in short succession. Only half a year apart, the Tokyo Summer Games and Beijing Winter Games invite inevitable comparisons. Which of the two countries will have the satisfaction of hosting the more successful Olympics?
Japan, hobbled by its own sluggish response to the COVID-19 pandemic, had to postpone the Tokyo Games for a year before the Liberal Democratic Party-led government went against popular opinion and the advice of public health professionals to host the Olympics.
There may be some latent satisfaction in staging the Tokyo Games, as a downsized performance is presumably better than no performance at all, but COVID-19 infection rates continue their inexorable climb, and the decision to hold the Games came at the price of barring spectators from almost all venues.
Japanese athletes may have performed well, but Japan will lose money on the Games. The losses come not just in terms of low ratings and reduced advertising revenue, but also in tourism, stimulation of the economy, and the ineffable but not so-trivial matter of generating goodwill. At the most expensive Olympics ever, with a billion-dollar renovated stadium as its centerpiece, world athletes competed against the backdrop of empty stands.
China's response to the pandemic, decried by some in the early months of 2020, now looks－in retrospect－to have been not only robust but effective as well. For China, keeping the infection rate low is necessary to hold the Winter Games, let alone make it a success. Beijing seems on track to do so, barring unforeseen epidemiological developments.
Where Beijing could suffer is in the political arena, as a group of right-wing politicians in the US is currently leading the boycott-Winter Games charge. The ostensible reason is Beijing's policy in Tibet, Hong Kong and other integral parts of China, but in this season of knee-jerk China-bashing, any old reason would do. Simply put, there is a constituency in US politics which sees China as a Cold War-type enemy that has to be countered at every turn. In their eyes, China can do nothing right and the US can do nothing wrong.
Japan, which is normally quick to follow the US' lead in global politics, both for reasons of opportunism, as evidenced in the chummy relationship between former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and previous US president Donald Trump, and for reasons of quiet coercion, as evidenced in the decades of yielding to a heavy-handed US military presence in Okinawa and other bases around Japan, has prudently been quiet on the topic of the Winter Games.
Had Beijing and Tokyo started to engage in a shouting match before the Summer Games, the prospect of tit-for-tat boycotts would have loomed and ruined both the Summer and Winter Olympics. Instead, Japan took the high ground diplomatically, making "Team China" feel welcome, and Team China, with its hundreds of athletes and dozens of top medal-earners, was surely one of the pillars, economically and athletically, of the Tokyo Olympics.
Presumably, Japan will take the high road and participate in the Beijing Winter Games, returning China's favor of lending credibility to the Tokyo Games. But if the US and some other countries refrain from participating in the Winter Games, it could very well sound the death knell for the modern Olympics.
It is true that the Summer and Winter Olympics, held every four years in alternate even years, have a knack for intersecting with political developments. Some countries threatened to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics due to the frightening political headwinds. In 1980, however, the US did boycott the Moscow Summer Games, with the Soviet Union and 14 aligned countries returning the favor and boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
For the US to single the Beijing Winter Olympics to hold China "to account" is an exercise in hypocrisy. The US would not have looked kindly upon being shunned as an international pariah and "held to account" for its merciless dropping of bombs and aggressive deployment of its lethal war machine over the years in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, to name a few foreign invasions, or for what happens on the streets of the US.
Yet the bossy tenor of US foreign policy, under President Joe Biden almost as much as under Trump, continues to insist that the countries it criticizes "do as we say, not as we do". The current rearguard actions of a few US lawmakers to boycott the Beijing Winter Games may actually gain enough steam to inflict damage to, if not leading to the cancellation of, the Games.
Already, major US advertisers that have signed up for the Games (Intel, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, Visa, AirBnB) are being harassed for not heeding the boycott call given by the likes of US Senator Tom Cotton, an ill-willed opponent of Beijing.
Athletes and sports fans know better than anyone that fair competition can transcend politics, race, national tensions, and human discord.
So to exist, let alone thrive in a world racked with political tensions, war and injustice, the Olympics needs a break from heavy-handed political posturing. It can and should go on, but the politics has to be toned down to allow the magic of bringing people from around the world together at a single venue for good-spirited competition to happen at all.
The responsibility to keep the Olympics cosmopolitan falls most heavily upon the host country, but all participants must be good sports as well. The International Olympic Committee, much-maligned for its inflexible rules, has a role to play as mediator.
It is good for the Olympics that Japan sought to make the Tokyo Games a calculated spectacle of Japanese public relations. Likewise, China is expected to be a gracious host and to treat all sports delegations, visiting journalists, sports fans, and other participants with consummate respect.
Japan may not have been an ideal host country but even its pared-down opening ceremony had its moments. The eerie and enlightening drone display of our planet, a single dazzling floating world rotating against the blackness of the night, is as good an image as can be attached to the Games, and it is in that spirit that the Beijing Winter Olympics should go forward.