The Olympic Spirit and Authoritarian Regimes

There's no keeping politics out of these Games.

I am old enough to remember President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games to punish the Soviets for their invasion of Afghanistan. It was morally justified but robbed American athletes who had trained their whole lives of what was likely a singular shot at Olympic glory. Further, critics charged, it violated the spirit of the games, which were supposed to put politics aside in the service of international goodwill. Naturally, the Soviets returned the favor, finding a pretext to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Here were are again, on the opening of yet another Olympics in Beijing, the greatest rights abuser on the planet. Rather than force athletes to suffer, the United States is merely conducting a completely meaningless “diplomatic boycott,” refusing to send high-level officials to legitimate the Games. Indeed, broadcasting rights fees paid by NBC and massive sponsorship deals from US-based companies are funding them.

Meanwhile, Russia, which have been the worst cheaters in international competition for generations, has been banned from the Olympics and similar competitions for years, after yet another revelation of widespread corruption. But Russian athletes are nonetheless competing, yet again, under the pretext of the “Russian Olympic Committee.” That really stings.

Oh, and China’s torchbearer is an army colonel who led a border incursion into India. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin have issued a joint statement warning against NATO expansion.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has issued a statement condemning human rights abuses—but warning US athletes not to speak out against them and “risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government because they are ruthless.”

I honestly don’t know what to do about this. China and Russia are major world powers and there’s no way for an international organization to function without their participation; removing them makes it no longer truly global. But I’m not interested in contributing to Beijing’s coffers or international prestige, either.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    As I said in the forum, my instinct is to not watch, but I wonder if that is unfair to the athletes who have no control over it.

  2. Kathy says:

    Berlin 1936.

    When the bar is that low, it may as well not be there.

    I wonder how Mongolia feels about NATO membership.

  3. CSK says:

    Apparently the athletes, coaches, and journalists covering the Olympics have to stay in a closed loop, and are forbidden to mingle with the public. Bartenders and wait staff wear Hazmat suits. The Chinese army prevents people from leaving or entering the loop.

    Sounds like a really good time.

  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    Given that the Olympic movement, beyond the athletes, is corrupt, this should be assumed to be a matter of course. The best that we can hope is that the corporations that are underwriting this get humiliated.

    There was a point when it was reasonable to be optimistic that China could make a positive contribution to the world, but that moment has long passed.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: There was a point when it was reasonable to be optimistic that China could make a positive contribution to the world, but that moment has long passed.

    Hey now, what about iphones?

  6. Kathy says:


    Maximum Security Olympics.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    I’m afraid I lost interest in the Olympics years ago, especially the Winter Olympics. Some athletes are really impressive and in interesting events. But too many hours of overhyped trash sports. Who really cares who wins moguls skiing? So I won’t watch again this year. That’ll show those godless commies.

  8. Sleeping Dog says:


    Who really cares who wins moguls skiing?

    Sleeping Dog raises his hand. Well I would if I bothered to watch. Forgetting for a moment about the corruption, the problem for me, with the Olympics as a televised event, is that there is too little competition shown and too much personal interest BS. I don’t care how a second grade teacher inspired an ice skater…

  9. Kathy says:


    Coverage in Mexico has been spotty since the games in Torino in 2006. I catch highlights in the news, but that’s it.

  10. Rick DeMent says:

    There was an Olympic official on NPR the other day pretty much saying outright that IOC feels that authoritarian countries are just much easier to deal with then Democracies with all their voting and popular sovereignty. And it’s true, how many cities in Democratic countries have pulled out because the people felt that too much was being spent for too little return? The IOC is looking at Authoritarian countries as a way to get their games funded in all their opulence and for them to make bank.

  11. Stormy Dragon says:


    I realize this makes me weird, but I love the winter Olympics. Way more than the summer ones. I just feel that it’s increasingly becoming a problematic love.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    @Rick DeMent: Formula 1 racing has the same problem. Germany is off the schedule because they won’t put up enough money. Saudi Arabia will. But, like the Olympics, they seem to see it as more an opportunity than a problem.

  13. CSK says:

    I think my lifetime lack of interest in the Olympics dates from childhood. When the games were broadcast, there was nothing else on television. So boring.

  14. just nutha says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I’ve seen a mogul skiing event once and I, too, have to admit it’s pretty neat. On the question of what to do about the problem outlined in the post, we could just admit that the Olympics are simply another example of conspicuous consumption that really has little to do with athletics, but I understand that choice is not particularly satisfying emotionally.

  15. just nutha says:

    @CSK: The only year I was ever particularly interested in the Winter Olympics was the year my classmate in jr. high and high school participated in them. Another of my classmates was an emerging figure skater, but she lost interest in her teens.

  16. EddieInCA says:

    Count me as one of those who is a complete jock, and loves most sports, who completely ignores the Winter Olympics. I just don’t care. My wife loves figure skating so that will be playing on an endless loop in our home for the next two weeks, but I’ll be out in the shed or garage, doing manly things*.

    *avoiding watching my wife watching figure skating.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:


    My wife will be joining your wife in watching the skaters. Me? I’ll be doing anything else.

  18. inhumans99 says:

    I just want to say that I forgot the Soviet’s did not participate in the 1984 Olympics held in Los Angeles. My parents live in the San Fernando Valley so I remember that Olympic Summer very well and all the button sets they purchased, stuff like that.

    Talk about picking the wrong year to boycott the Olympics, because Los Angeles is held up to this day as an example of a city that was able to hold the Olympics and not lose their financial shirt in the process. Even now, folks still say perhaps the Summer Olympics should just be given to Los Angeles, that way host cities do not have to spend billions to host and not get all that much of an ROI for their money.

    Not to mention that the ratings back in 1984, I bet they were pretty wonderful to behold, the Soviet’s would have been well-served to have participated back then.

    Anyway, I agree that in theory the Olympics should not become entwined in the politics of the host Country/City, but as it has often been the case (going way back to the 1930/40s) politics sometimes effects what goes down during the Summer/Winter Olympics.

  19. R. Dave says:

    It was morally justified but robbed American athletes who had trained their whole lives of what was likely a singular shot at Olympic glory.

    Honestly, I can’t even begin to wrap my head around the moral code of anyone who thinks athletic achievement and f*cking genocide are even remotely comparable issues of concern. Any athlete that thinks their shot at personal “glory” in what is ultimately a pretty pointless and arbitrary endeavor is important enough to justify turning a blind eye to – again, I emphasize – f*cking genocide, gets zero sympathy from me.

    Further, critics charged, it violated the spirit of the games, which were supposed to put politics aside in the service of international goodwill.

    Some things go beyond “politics”. We’re not talking about disputes over fishing rights here. Berlin 1936 is justly seen as an abhorrent moral failure, and so too should Beijing 2022.

  20. Mu Yixiao says:


    I called spots for 180 performances of the Ice Capades. I’ve fulfilled my obligation in figure skating. 😀

  21. Ha Nguyen says:

    Unless people are willing to put their money where their mouth is and just boycott all goods made in or exported from China, any Olympic-watching boycott is merely a mealy-mouthed attempt at being holier than thou.

    I will watch or not watch the Olympics based on my interest level for the sport and whatever catches my fancy at the time.

  22. R.Dave says:

    @Ha Nguyen: Yes, because “everything” and “nothing” are clearly the only options. *eyeroll*

  23. Ken_L says:

    It’s long been recognized that the only sensible solution to the multiple problems inherent in the Olympics is to build a permanent home for them in Greece. However this would wreck at a stroke all the fun the IOC and its hangers-on have getting bribes from cities wanting to host the games, so it will never happen.

    Global warming will take care of the Winter Olympics in the fullness of time.

  24. James Joyner says:

    @R. Dave: So, first off, Carter’s boycott was over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, not the Chinese genocide of the Uyghurs. It was a last-minute call but the impact was borne by our athletes and, more importantly, farmers. Given how ineffective the gesture was, it’s reasonable to question. And, yes, I think it’s reasonable to feel empathy for athletes in Olympic sports—especially in those days when they were more truly amateur—being denied the opportunity to compete in events for which they’d trained so long and hard.

    China’s situation is different. We’ve known since 2015 that it would host the 2022 games and could certainly have announced a boycott unless certain conditions were met but did not. I don’t know that it was even seriously considered.

  25. R. Dave says:

    @James Joyner: Yeah, sorry if my comment wasn’t clear. It was directed at the current Beijing Games; I just quoted your sentence about the Moscow games because it referenced the idea that the athletes’ lost opportunity should be a significant concern in deciding whether to boycott, and I just don’t think it should be. I think the relevant question should simply be whether the host country’s transgressions are sufficiently abhorrent / outside the norms of acceptable state behavior to justify undermining the universality of an international forum. The athletic competition itself is just so many orders of magnitude less important that I just don’t think it’s really even relevant to the decision. And any athlete who thinks otherwise, in my opinion, is so self-centered and morally obtuse that I can’t muster any sympathy for them. The ones who would support a boycott despite their personal disappointment, however, do merit sympathy. They seem to be a distinct minority though.