The Olympics Are A Broken, Useless Metaphor

Political statements around them are fine (if not particularly potent), but the event still shouldn't exist.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Content warning for mention of human rights abuses and sexual assault.

In another installment of “Sticking To Sports Has Never Been Possible,” this week, the Biden administration announced that it will not send an official delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which are scheduled to begin on February 4. The rationale behind the move is to make a statement against the “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki

Such a statement is, if anything, overdue. Ethnic and religious minorities in China’s Xinjiang region have endured escalating oppression via imprisonment, forced labor, re-education, sterilization and suppression of religious activity for years; leaked official documents detailing these plans were made public in September, showing explicitly to the world what many in the region already knew from experience. The U.S. House is currently considering a bill that would ban all imports from the region, unless it could be proven that those products had not been made using forced labor. 

Though there’s a clear problem, nothing about this latest announcement is straightforward. Out of all the ways that the administration might have chosen to address what is clearly a pressing human rights issue, they picked sports. They chose a gesture so ultimately inconsequential that had it not been announced, few would have noticed besides Olympic organizers — one that they are trying to get other countries to join them in with little success because, as the New York Times put it, this “measure that is likely only to offend China, not change it.”

The Biden Administration is leaning into the broken metaphor.

Like many protests, it is symbolic; unlike most protests, it is being made by people with the power to do much more to create change than offer symbols. In that sense, it is well-suited to the Olympics — a wholly corrupt enterprise preserved by the elevated ideals it purports to promote and protect: International cooperation. That evergreen pageant response, world peace. 

The Biden Administration is leaning into the broken metaphor. The optics would be too egregious if they didn’t, if they showed up to these Olympics the same way the and their predecessors showed up to all the existentially harmful Olympics before. It’s worked, in the sense that the Chinese government has reacted

Meanwhile, American corporations sponsoring the Olympics aren’t going anywhere. Athletes themselves are still heavily restricted in how they are permitted to protest during the games by the IOC. The games’ facade of harmony will try to stretch to accommodate any number of intrinsic injustices and inequalities, from systemic sexual assault — as in U.S.A. gymnastics — to the gross misallocation of public funds that takes place with every Olympics, misallocations so egregious that Los Angeles area politicians are campaigning on how harmful they are ahead of the 2028 Olympics in L.A. People will root for underdog countries to succeed in winter sports contests dominated by wealthy ones à la Cool Runnings, as though that would prove that we are all really just the same. 

There is no question that human rights violations do constitute a crisis worthy of international concern. But using the hollowest possible symbol as leverage — an organization that has not even proven capable of keeping its own athletes safe, much less promoting a more peaceful planet — only reinforces its power.