New York – Athletes from more than 100 countries were supposed to stream into Tokyo's National Stadium on Friday as the opening ceremony for the 2020 Olympic Games unfolded. Instead, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers merely posted a video message reminding people that the games will (in theory) still happen next year. It’s the most serious crisis to face the Olympics in decades. But in all likelihood, it will soon be the second most serious.
A bigger calamity awaits just five months after the rescheduled Summer Games, when athletes are supposed to convene in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Thanks to growing concerns over China’s geopolitical ambitions and human rights record, boycotts are already being discussed by some of the Olympics’ most influential competitors. If they follow through, their absence will not only undermine the credibility of the games but severely curtail the sponsorships that even make them possible.
The 2022 Games were in trouble long before Beijing was chosen to host them. When bidding for the host city opened in 2012, the International Olympic Committee made no secret of the fact that it would prefer that the games return to Europe. But after a slew of contenders pulled out, the only bidders ended up being Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan — a city with no track record of hosting an event even remotely approaching the scale of the Olympics.
It should’ve been a landslide. Yet the IOC eventually awarded the games to Beijing by a narrow vote of 44-40. The city’s largely snowless winter climate was one factor against it. But equally important were qualms that dated back to 2008, including disputes over press freedom, public protest and internet access. In 2018, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China asked the IOC to strip Beijing of the 2022 Games, citing a “dire” human rights record. Since then, public officials, human-rights groups and major newspapers have called for a boycott.
It wouldn’t be the first time. In 1980, the United States led a 60-country boycott of the Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although it didn't deter the Soviets or their geopolitical ambitions, it did deny them the propaganda victory of hosting the U.S. and its allies during an invasion. Sponsors lost money and — thanks to Russia’s decision to reciprocate at the 1984 Los Angeles Games — the Olympics were diminished for a decade.
A boycott of Beijing 2022 would be more serious. The problem is that the Winter Olympics are a much smaller event than the Summer Games, and most of the athletes, including the top competitors, are citizens of the affluent countries most likely to boycott. More than a quarter of those who competed in the 2018 Winter Games were from just five countries: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the U.S. Those countries also occupied the top five spots in the medal table (China was 14th). The absence of these teams would seriously undermine the competition — and make for a far less compelling and profitable sponsorship opportunity. Who wants to watch an Olympic hockey tournament minus the Canadians and Americans?
Even if Beijing avoids a boycott, it's unlikely to prevent a threat it considers nearly as serious: activism by athletes. Last month, a group of American competitors petitioned the IOC to scrap its longstanding rule prohibiting political protests at Olympic events. That request will almost certainly not be granted, setting the stage for a showdown between athletes, organizers and Chinese authorities. How will the latter react if a gold medal ski jumper ascends the podium with a Tibetan flag in hand? The answer could affect whether medals are awarded, competition continues and sponsors pay up for future games.
Those might seem like lesser problems amid a harrowing pandemic. But the looming prospect of a fractious 2022 is already undermining the Olympics’ promise to build “a peaceful and better world” through sports. For now, China appears to be running out the clock and hoping that the allure of competition will convince countries and athletes to overlook politics. That was a dangerous bet in 2008; in 2022, the odds are far worse.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."