Olympians set to boycott the 2022 Games, as many did in 1936 – J.
This piece first appeared at The Forward.
President Biden’s decision to suspend U.S. diplomatic participation in the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games, while allowing athletes to participate, confronts U.S. pole vaulters and shot puters with a familiar moral dilemma: the sport and politics should they mix?
It is a shame that the president has decided to limit his response to human rights violations in China to such an intermediate step. After all, the diplomatic ceremonies that take place at the Olympics are the less important parts of the event; it is the sporting competition that counts. Allowing American athletes to travel to China will undermine the power of the Biden administration’s diplomatic gesture.
Today, the moral burden rests on the athletes themselves, as in 1936.
When the Roosevelt administration refused to boycott that year’s Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany, American Jewish organizations, the NAACP and other groups called on American athletes to refuse to go to Berlin. , to protest against the persecution of German Jews.
Sadly, only a handful of athletes were willing to forgo that year’s Olympic competition awards and speak out against oppression: sprinter Herman Neugass, swim coach Charlotte Epstein, athletics stars Syd Koff, Lillian Copeland, Milton Green and Norman Cahners, the Long Island University Blackbirds basketball team and speed skater Jack Shea (the 1936 Winter Games were also held in Germany) . Their sacrifices deserve to be remembered and honored.
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Over the years, almost all athletes have continued to adhere to the idea that sport and politics should not be mixed. On the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, speed skater Joey Cheek, gold medalist at the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, urged athletes to speak out against China’s support for the Sudanese government, who sponsored Arab militias who committed genocide. in Darfur. A few athletes have expressed sympathy for Cheek’s efforts regarding Darfur, but no participating Olympic athlete has publicly criticized the Chinese government or boycotted the Games.
Recently, however, the consensus against mixing sports and politics has started to crack. When controversy erupted over a new Arizona immigration law in 2010, the Phoenix Suns basketball team donned uniforms with their team’s name written in Spanish in solidarity with the Latino community in the state. In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to defend the national anthem to protest racism in American society.
Last year the dam finally broke. When protests for racial justice erupted across the country, professional sports leagues stepped in. The National Basketball Association has postponed playoff games to protest Jacob Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The National Football League has painted the words “End Racism” in the end zones of its teams’ fields. Highly ranked tennis player Naomi Osaka turned down a scheduled semi-final at a non-major tournament in New York City. âBefore being an athlete, I was a black woman,â Osaka said. “And as a black woman, I feel like there are much more important issues to be addressed.”
The trend continued last year, with Major League Baseball withdrawing its Atlanta All-Star game in protest against recently passed voting laws in Georgia.
But not all the causes have raised awareness in the sports world, especially when lucrative trade deals are at stake, like the NBA’s nascent relationship with the Chinese government. When Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a six-word protest against China’s oppression of Hong Kong in 2019, the Rockets owner forced him to back down, and some prominent players publicly defended China.
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Whatever one thinks of the merits of a particular issue or a particular type of event, the athletes speaking out stand for an important principle: social justice should not stop at the border.
Genocide abroad should mean as much to every American as immigration or race relations laws in the country. The US government has determined that the Chinese regime is carrying out an “ongoing genocide” against its Muslim Uyghur citizens. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, China’s “crimes against humanity” include “forced sterilization, sexual violence, slavery, torture, forcible transfer, persecution and imprisonment or any other serious deprivation of physical liberty â.
Celebrities such as athletes are in a unique position to do anything for human rights because, for better or worse, celebrities have influence. Young people admire them. It is therefore important that they use their notoriety for strictly personal ends or that they also use it to fight against injustice. This mattered when Babe Ruth signed a demonstration in 1942 by German Americans against “Hitler’s policy of cold-blooded extermination of the Jews of Europe.” And, conversely, it is important that NBA star LeBron James has publicly opposed criticism of the oppressive Chinese regime.
The Chinese government sees the Olympics as an opportunity to improve its image and dispel human rights concerns. The athletes who will travel to Beijing in the coming weeks (the opening ceremonies are scheduled for February 4, 2022) will make a statement by their presence alone. Indeed, they will say: Nothing to see here, friends; let the games begin!
The tennis star Osaka was right: there are “much more important things” in the world than throwing touchdowns, hitting home runs or winning at Wimbledon. It’s refreshing to hear an athlete express this important principle. But will Olympians have the moral courage to apply it to the genocide of the Uyghurs by China?