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You can have Biden’s tickets to hockey

In the unfortunate case that US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is a huge fan of the bobsled, he will be saddened to know that he will not be able to watch that competition at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing in person. That’s despite the fact that as a White House cabinet member, he would typically be exactly the kind of person that would be sent to the Olympic Games, like it or not. That’s part of the tradition of Global Sport – nations send a diplomatic envoy to represent their homeland in what is supposedly an apolitical gathering of elite athletes. The highest honor, of course, is an audience of the American President, which can create its own awkward moments. Like the time when George W. Bush sat next to Vladimir Putin at the 2008 Summer Games, also in Beijing, as the Russians invaded Georgia.

We’ll have no risk of that this time, as the US has just announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games. What that means is even though our athletes will compete, we won’t send any government officials. This comes in response to China’s increasingly worrisome human rights record, including their abuse of Chinese Muslims and their anti-democracy posture in Hong Kong. Add in the inexplicable disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, and it became almost impossible for the US not to do something.

What we didn’t do, and few people seemed to want, was a full-stop boycott of the Games, keeping our athletes stateside to really send a message and add economic injury to diplomatic insult. The last time we did that was the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow over their occupation of Afghanistan, a decision that likely sunk Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign against Reagan. That and the hostage crisis, of course. And gas lines. And inflation. Stop me if this sounds familiar. Regardless, that decision played just as bad over time as it did then, regardless of whether you thought it was the right decision. Generally speaking, those in elite Olympic sport asked not to be used as geopolitical pawns, and those in government realized that was no way to win an election. So when the public demanded to punish China through the Olympics, the Biden administration took the more politically safe route, leaving curlers and lugers the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

The outcries have been fairly predictable. Most American politicians, particularly Democrats, support the decision. Some on the far right, like Josh Hawley, have said it’s a hollow gesture and we should pull our athletes. But that’s a politician looking for a partisan divide. New Zealand is going have a similar diplomatic boycott, and our allies in Europe, Canada, and beyond, are largely undecided. Not surprisingly, China has called this “outright political provocation” and said they will take requisite countermeasures. I’m sure that means they won’t send politicians to LA in 2028, assuming there is either still the Olympics or perhaps even a 2028.

I suppose the question isn’t whether we should do this, because that’s really a quandary of geopolitics that goes beyond my high school comprehension of government. I’m also not sure I can guess whether it works, especially since working will be interpreted a bunch of different ways. At the very least, we will continue to talk about China and human rights. So if that’s the goal, then mission accomplished. As for actual change, who knows.

The question to again ask here, something we’ve asked many times before, is why are still holding the Olympics anyway? If this boycott proves one thing, it’s that we’ve got much better, far less contentious ways to crown world championships across the range of warm and cold weather sports. And almost all of those can be done without the threat of also playing the sport of global chicken, something I’d rather see confined to 80’s Matthew Broderick movies. The Olympic Games are broken – from their insane costs to the impact on a host city to the challenge of doping controls to the fact that generally speaking, no one wants to host. There’s also pandemics, undue climate impact, and the fact that there’s more high-level sport on television than the average sports fan can consume in 10 lifetimes, all competing for shelf space. So add that to the fact that we’re going the spend the next decade deciding which prime minister won’t get to watch the Modern Pentathlon, and well, maybe it’s time we put the five rings to bed.

Of course, for the American government, next year’s Winter Games are already asleep.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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