THE BEIJING OLYMPICS: WORST IDEA IN THE HISTORY OF SPORTS
China has a horrific human rights record and is blamed for a pandemic, yet the greed-obsessed IOC moves on with the Games, subjecting U.S. athletes to untold political landmines as NBC fakes coverage
The official edict is expected shortly. Athletes at the Beijing Olympics will be allowed to breathe only when competing. Talking is prohibited at all times. As for eating, showering and using the facilities, those options are under consideration, but only if participants agree to be isolated in hermetically sealed boxes tantamount to solitary confinement.
Think I’m joking? The Winter Games, which you probably didn’t know start next week, will be a dark, dystopian exercise unlike any that sports has experienced. If the Olympics were designed as a joyful, quadrennial celebration of global togetherness, the Chinese government has turned the competition into an authoritarian game of high-surveillance Gotcha.
Will athletes who test positive for COVID-19 — and there will be many — ever be heard from again, banished to lives of feeding goats on penal farms in the mountains? Will anyone who utters a disparaging word about China on a burner phone be dragged into the Yongding River? If some of the few “selected spectators’’ permitted at venues ignore the no-cheer, only-clap mandate, will their mouths be duct-taped? And heaven knows what might happen to a visiting athlete who violates the country’s laws against political expression.
“Any behavior or speech against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are subject to certain punishment,’’ said Yang Shu, who has a very long title: deputy director general of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee.
Certain punishment? Off with their heads!
All of which begs the $110 billion question: Why exactly are we doing this, again? Has there ever been an organized gathering, in the history of Planet Earth, that makes less sense than trying to stage the Olympics in a Communist country — the one blamed for hatching a global pandemic in a Wuhan lab, the one with the abhorrent human rights record — while Omicron and who knows how many other variants continue their deadly whirlwind? The answer, as always, is the corporate money grab. Because large U.S. sponsors are hellbent on exploiting the financial might of the host nation — Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Visa among them — they are pumping as much as $2 billion into the International Olympic Committee coffers. The end game: a collective $110 billion in annual China revenue eyed by 10 of the 12 top sponsors.
This makes it economically worthwhile for NBC, bedfellow of a rotten-to-the-core IOC, to still broadcast the Games — even if all the network’s play-by-play teams will be 6,850 miles away inside a studio in Stamford, Conn. If anything scream-frames the absurdity of moving forward with these Games, it’s faux coverage from a media company paying billions in rights fees. Why watch if not even NBC cares about optimum production quality, with ratings already assumed as the lowest ever about to plummet into crickets-only apathy? Lead host Mike Tirico will fly in for the opening ceremony, then leave a few days later for the Super Bowl in Los Angeles. Not that it matters, because the mild-mannered Tirico is China-friendly anyway — unlike predecessor Bob Costas, who no longer is with NBC for these very reasons of editorial suppression. Last time the Olympics were in Beijing, in 2008, the government tried to shut down NBC’s feeds when Costas made mention of China’s human abuses.
“This is tricky terrain now for NBC and for other Americans. We don’t know what sort of peril anyone might be in if they speak forthrightly,” Costas told the Washington Post. “They brook no criticism, they double down and they threaten consequences.”
Exactly. If not for the dedicated men and women who have trained years for their Olympic moments, this would be an appropriate time for a U.S. boycott of China’s Games. Hades would be a more suitable host. As it is, there is a price to be paid for the government’s embrace of genocide and crimes against humanity. Also, dark questions remain about Peng Shuai, the tennis champion who accused a former Communist Party official of sexually assaulting her, then vanished for three weeks.
But of immediate concern to the Biden administration, which issued a lukewarm rebuke of China by refusing to send diplomats to the Games, is the unsettling possibility — no, alarming likelihood — that U.S. athletes will be targeted for violations. We understand why China is trying to prevent the coronavirus outbreaks that dogged the Tokyo Games last summer, and why Beijing is in “Zero Covid” mode, yet at what point do protocols and restrictions become weapons against the American delegation? The U.S. Olympic Committee requires all athletes, staff members and auxiliary personnel to be vaccinated before entering China, but who knows if Beijing’s definition of being “vaccinated’’ differs from ours at the border? And any athlete judged to be unvaccinated must quarantine for at least 21 days, the equivalent of being sent home, assuming the infected are allowed to go home. Everyone is tested daily. Masks are mandated 24/7. No one is allowed to wander outside the “closed-loop management system,’’ which shuts off the Olympics to the world it is supposed to entertain.
This being America, some athletes will want to use platforms to speak out. When Yang Shu alluded to the “Olympic spirit,’’ it was in reference to Rule 50 of the IOC charter — which forbids speech considered to be a “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.’’ Before the team planes even arrive, some U.S. athletes surely will be plotting ways to express themselves politically, racially and religiously. Might such “demonstrations’’ lead to medals being vacated? And what will China do with the evil activists? Arrest and jail them? That is assuming American athletes even get there, as China suspends flights from the U.S., and the U.S. responds in kind.
You will see NBC’s ads touting American stars such as Chloe Kim, Mikaela Shiffrin and Shaun White, who’s still hotdogging after all these years. But the Beijing Games have little to do with sports events. The contest is America vs. China — whose ideologies are superior, who is smarter about COVID, whose way of life is supreme. I don’t like our chances on Chinese soil, where they have all the espionage gadgets and the ability to monitor and control as they please. Among my memories of 13 1/2 years ago in Beijing was the night I returned to my hotel room and thought I’d closed the door. But I left it cracked, and seconds later, the phone rang. A voice on the other end said my door was open. Then there was the day I noticed the facade of a building near the basketball arena. For some reason, I was convinced there wasn’t actually a building behind it. I walked over … no building, just dirt. Why? Because China always is more interested in impressing the world with its b.s. than striving for integrity and the greater good.
Most of all, this Winter Olympiad is about greed slicing like a chain saw through the most logical of conclusions: The IOC should postpone the Games, if not cancel them and hope for better Parisian days in 2 1/2 years. China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, promises a spectacle that will be “green, safe and simple.’’
Emphasis on the green, naturally.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.