SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mitt Romney urged American spectators to boycott the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, saying prohibiting athletes from competing is “the easy, but wrong answer” to addressing China’s human rights issues, in a New York Times op-ed Monday.
Romney, a Republican, said as leader of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, he “gained an understanding of the enormous sacrifice made by our Olympic hopefuls and their families. It would be unfair to ask a few hundred young American athletes to shoulder the burden of our disapproval.”
He said “an economic and diplomatic boycott” of the event set to start next February, where only the families of athletes and coaches attend, would prevent the United States “from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Communist Party will raise from hotels, meals and tickets.”
The American companies “that routinely send large groups of their customers and associates to the Games” should instead gather at U.S. venues to watch the competition, Romney suggested. Utah is home to a bobsled, luge and skeleton track, ski jumps, a speedskating oval and other 2002 venues still in use.
The 2012 GOP presidential nominee also called on President Joe Biden to stand with the minorities and others oppressed by China, saying the country “deserves our condemnation” over a list of issues, including what he described as genocide against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.
“Uyghur women are forcefully sterilized or impregnated by Han Chinese men. Adults, ripped from their families, are sentenced into forced labor and concentration camps. Among ethnic Chinese, access to uncensored broadcast news and social media is prohibited. Citizens are surveyed, spied upon and penalized for attending religious services or expressing dissent,” Romney said.
China also needs to be held accountable for reneging on allowing Hong Kong self-rule, “brutally” suppressing peaceful protests and incarcerating respected journalists, he said.
“Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us,” Romney said.
His proposed boycott, Romney said, should include collaboration with NBC, the American TV network with the rights to broadcast the Beijing Olympics. The network “has already done important work to reveal the reality of the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and brutality,” he said.
Instead of broadcasting “jingoistic elements of the opening and closing ceremonies,” NBC should instead show “documented reports of China’s abuses.” The sale of television rights are a major source of revenue for Olympic host cities, as are corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.
Romney said the United States shouldn’t go it alone in protesting China during the Olympics.
“We should enlist our friends around the world to join our economic boycott. Limiting spectators, selectively shaping our respective delegations and refraining from broadcasting Chinese propaganda would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics,” he said.
China “does not deserve an Olympic showcase,” Romney said, but it is too late to move the event. Beijing, host of the 2008 Summer Games, was selected years ago for 2022 after other serious competitors dropped out of the running largely due to a lack of local support.
It’s time for the U.S. and the rest of the free world “to have a heart-to-heart with the International Olympic Committee” over that decision, he said, citing past Olympics held in Germany under Adolf Hitler and Russia under Vladimir Putin.
“The IOC has hoped that awarding Games to repressive regimes would tend to lessen their abuses,” Romney said. “But hope has too often met a different reality — in Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China. In authoritarian states, the Olympics has more often been a tool of propaganda than a lever of reform.”
What would withholding revenue, recognition from China mean for Utah’s Olympic bid?
Salt Lake City is currently bidding to host a future Winter Games, likely in 2030 or 2034. The city was selected over Denver as the country’s choice for another Winter Games, but bid discussions have been overshadowed by the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games until this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fraser Bullock, the chief operating officer of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and a leader of the effort to bring the Winter Games back to Utah, said he agrees with Romney “that punishing our athletes is unfair to them and it will have little effect, if any, on Beijing or on China.”
He said the question is what could be done to demonstrate disapproval without punishing athletes.
“I think Mitt’s idea of a diplomatic boycott in particular is very powerful and is an appropriate action where people or countries can direct their energy,” Bullock said, adding he believes “there likely will have to be some action taken, or actions taken, to show the concern, the deep concern, over human rights violations.”
As far as any impact on Utah’s Olympic bid, Bullock said Romney’s statement “stays true” to what he described as “the highest priority in Olympic movement,” allowing athletes to compete. That helped guide the IOC’s decision to go forward with the Tokyo Games, even though news reports now suggest overseas spectators may be barred.
That decision makes it clear that athletic competition and “the strength of the human spirit are the foundation to the Olympic and Paralympic movements,” Bullock said.
Romney not the only one talking about some sort of boycott against Beijing
Romney said it’s understandable there’s talk of the U.S. completely boycotting the Beijing Games, including by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who tweeted recently that holding the Olympics in Beijing while China’s Communist Party “is committing crimes against democracies around the world, is completely inappropriate.”
Last month, Romney said it would be unfair not to let U.S. athletes compete in Beijing but he’s be happy if Biden boycotted the upcoming Winter Games in China. He said he was working with a Democrat, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, to “find some ways to make our concerns about China very, very clear without punishing our athletes.”
Those ways, Romney said in February, would include discouraging Americans from attending the 2022 Winter Games as spectators and making sure media coverage framed what China is doing to the Uyghurs and to Hong Kong.
In Monday’s op-ed, Romney said an athlete boycott of Beijing could be counterproductive. noting no one “seriously believes” President Jimmy Carter’s athlete boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow improved Soviet behavior, though it did dash the dreams of American athletes.
“The Olympic Games aren’t just a showcase for the host nation, but a platform for values both American and universal,” he said, warning of the loss of “the global symbolism of our young American heroes standing atop the medals podium, hand to their hearts, as ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ plays on Chinese soil.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also wrote an op-ed Monday, for Fox News, opposing an athlete boycott of Beijing.
“The worst thing we can do to stand up to China is to keep our athletes home. As anyone who has ever faced down a bully knows, when you decide to hide and not to fight, the bully wins,” Cruz said, accusing the Biden administration of floating the idea of an athlete boycott.
The Texas senator said he “and many others hope that the International Olympic Committee comes to its senses and moves the 2022 Olympic Winter Games out of Beijing,” adding that he is “flabbergasted that the IOC would ever give this human rights-abusing, free speech-repressing, trade-and-currency manipulating set of totalitarians who make up the Chinese Communist Party the honor of hosting the Olympic Games in the first place.”
What the IOC and China are saying
Last Friday, IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters the Switzerland-based organization must stay out of politics.
“We are not a super-world government where the IOC could solve or even address issues for which not the U.N. Security Council, no G7, no G20 has solutions,” Bach said during a news conference following three days of IOC meetings.
West Germany’s boycott against the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow kept that country’s Olympic team from competing, including Bach, who had won a gold medal in fencing four years earlier. Other countries that boycotted the Moscow Olympics included Japan and Canada, although athletes from other nations did not attend.
China says “political motives” underlie the boycott effort.
“China firmly rejects the politicization of sports and opposes using human rights issues to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said a week ago, according to the Associated Press.
He said an effort at a boycott “is doomed to failure.”