With the 2022 Winter Olympics about to open in Beijing, China finds itself in the crosshairs of multiple Western propaganda offensives. From a “diplomatic boycott” by the United States and its allies over spurious charges of genocide in Xinjiang, to the media spectacle surrounding Peng Shuai, and a torrent of bad-faith criticism leveled at China’s zero-Covid policies. Critics of the Olympics on the Western left have by and large actively propagated, or at least refused to rebut, these narratives in the buildup to the Beijing Games.
In this essay, Charles Xu exposes these narratives for the new Cold War propaganda they are. At the same time, he draws from valuable left analysis of the Olympic movement’s historical imbrication with white supremacy to explore China’s fraught relationship with international sports. In the 1950s and 60s, the nascent PRC treated the Games as a stage to assert its legitimacy and challenge Western hegemony over international sport. The history of that protracted struggle is invaluable for understanding the geopolitical stakes of Beijing 2022.
The incredible disappearing diplomatic boycott
On February 4, the 2022 Winter Olympics are set to open in Beijing. With this, the Chinese capital will become the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter Games. It will also make the People’s Republic of China the first country in the Global South ever to host the Winter Olympics, which have historically been dominated by Europe and North America (home to the top 14 countries in the all-time medal table). China remains the only Asian host nation in history besides Japan and South Korea, both of which are advanced capitalist states embedded firmly within the U.S. economic and military sphere of influence.
These milestones have gone almost entirely unremarked-upon in Western media coverage leading up to the Games, which instead paints China as a uniquely “authoritarian” and therefore undeserving host. On this as with virtually every issue of geopolitical import, corporate media march in lockstep with their respective governments in their drive toward a new Cold War against China. The United States led the way in announcing a “diplomatic boycott” of the Beijing Olympics on December 6, 2021, citing allegations of “genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” It was followed by Britain, Canada, and Australia (i.e. all but one of its “Five Eyes” allies), as well as Japan and a smattering of small north European countries.
No shortage of irony besmirches these allegations. Japan remains largely unrepentant for its brutal invasion and colonial rule over much of East and Southeast Asia in the first half of the 20th century, which killed around 20 million people in China alone. The Five Eyes, constituting a majority of “boycott” participants, are united not just by the English language but by a common history of settler colonialism, Indigenous genocide, and violently enforced regional and global hegemony. The authors of this dismal spectacle are therefore in no moral position to levy such charges against China—charges which themselves have been repeatedly and thoroughly exposed as a mixture of gross exaggerations and outright falsifications, not least by hundreds of Uyghurs’ testimonials from within Xinjiang.
These allegations are just one expression of the pervasive Orientalism framing Western coverage of China, under which Chinese voices may exercise no legitimate speech save to clamor for Western salvation from Communist Party despotism. Implicating Chinese people at every level, from whole nationalities like the Uyghurs to individuals in China and the diaspora, this Orientalism was in full effect during the manufactured controversy around tennis star Peng Shuai. In November 2021, she posted an explosive and troubling exposé on her extramarital affair with former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli which immediately went viral on Weibo. The post’s rapid deletion, and Peng’s week-long absence from social media, led to a veritable torrent of performative concern over her whereabouts and safety—pushed by all corners of Western sports media as well as Steve Simon, the white American chairman of the Women’s Tennis Association. No amount of personal assurances from Peng herself, in public and impromptu interviews, sufficed to tamp down the now-universal speculation around her “forced disappearance” or the willful mistranslation of her post to imply sexual assault. This lurid story’s timing and its implication of Chinese sports in particular made it irresistible to Beijing 2022 boycott campaigners, who are predictably using it to fearmonger over athlete safety and surveillance at the Games themselves.
Thus far, China’s official responses to the diplomatic boycott have combined ridicule at apparent backtracking by the U.S. (which quietly requested, and received, visas for 46 consular officials) with boilerplate appeals to avoid politicizing the Games. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, for instance, objected that the move “seriously violates the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter.” While this is to be expected at an official level, it elides the manifestly and unavoidably political nature of international sport, and the modern Olympics in particular. To properly understand the conflict over Beijing 2022, we must examine the ideological underpinnings of the Olympic movement and its long history of imbrication with global white supremacy and Euro-American hegemony. It is a history in which the People’s Republic of China, in its quest for legitimacy and international recognition in the face of imperialist aggression, has played an outsize and especially fascinating role.
The sordid racial and colonial history of the Olympics
The following historical overview will draw extensively on two book-length studies. The first is Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics (2016) by Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player and current professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon. He is perhaps the foremost critic of the Olympics and their often baleful social impact on host cities from an anti-capitalist standpoint, albeit one strongly colored by Western human rights discourses, especially in relation to China as discussed below. The second study is Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008 (2008) by Xu Guoqi, a historian at the University of Hong Kong who writes from a perspective broadly aligned with contemporary Chinese liberalism.
As Boykoff notes, white supremacy and a particularly aristocratic vein of Eurocentrism were inscribed into the modern Olympics from the very beginning. Case in point is Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who in 1894 founded the International Olympic Committee. A prototypical ideologue of scientific racism, de Coubertin lamented what he called “the natural indolence of the Oriental.” Nonetheless he pressed for the inclusion of African athletes, if only because they were supposedly wracked by “a thousand jealousies of the white man and yet, at the same time, the wish to imitate him and thus share his privileges.” These ideological underpinnings left a lasting impact on the spirit and structure of the international games: the 1904 St. Louis Olympics featured the grotesque spectacle of the Anthropology Days, an event intended (and rigged) to “prove,” through head-to-head athletic contests, that “primitive men are far inferior to modern Caucasians in both physical and mental development.”
Infamously, these tendencies reached a sinister climax with the 1936 Berlin Games, an unabashed Nazi propaganda coup that left a New York Times correspondent with the impression that “this is a nation happy and prosperous almost beyond belief; that Hitler is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, political leaders in the world today.” Linking the 1936 games to the one at present, some have condemned the blatant hypocrisy of the U.S. government leading a symbolic “boycott” of Beijing 2022 after wholeheartedly endorsing Berlin 1936. Opposing commentators in corporate media tendentiously treat the latter as the original “Genocide Olympics” and a precedent for the former. Easily forgotten in all these comparisons, however, is that a robust campaign was mounted for a U.S. boycott in 1936. It was ruthlessly quashed by American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, who opined that
Boycotts have been started by the Jews which have aroused the citizens of German extraction to reprisals. Jews with communistic and socialistic antecedents have been particularly active, and the result is that the same sort of class hatred which exists in Germany and which every sane man deplores, is being aroused in the United States.
After his election in 1952 as president of the IOC, Brundage wrote admiringly that “Germany in the 1930’s had a plan which brought it from almost bankruptcy to be the most powerful country in the world in a half dozen years. Other countries with dictators have accomplished the same thing in a smaller way.” His embrace of overtly white nationalist regimes extended during his presidency to apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia—which he fought fiercely (if futilely) to keep in the Olympic fold—and to the Jim Crow South in his home country. So synonymous was his name with white supremacy in sport that he earned the moniker “Slavery Avery.” In 1967, Black American athletes organized through the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) explicitly demanded “removal of the anti-Semitic and anti-Black personality Avery Brundage from his post as Chairman of the International Olympic Committee.”
In 1968, the OPHR issued a novel call to boycott the Mexico City Games, not over the choice of host, but rather the anti-Black racism pervading the entire IOC apparatus. No such boycott occurred, but Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic Black Power salute on the Olympic podium nonetheless immortalized the campaign. Brundage was predictably apoplectic at this gesture, which he labeled a “nasty demonstration against the United States flag by Negroes,” and ordered both athletes suspended from the U.S. team. While the OPHR did not achieve all its aims—Brundage lasted four more years as president—it was instrumental in securing the expulsion of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic movement. And its boycott call anticipated the principled withdrawal of 29 mostly African countries from the 1976 Games, after the IOC refused to ban New Zealand for permitting its rugby team to tour South Africa.
The IOC remains to this day a self-selected and self-perpetuating bastion of Euro-American chauvinism and aristocratic privilege. Fully one-tenth of its active and honorary members hold hereditary royal titles (though these now include a strong Gulf Arab contingent), and its only “honour member” [sic] is Henry Kissinger. Every IOC president save for Brundage has been European; French and English remain the only working languages. Thus for the first eight decades of their existence, efforts to boycott the Olympics emanated almost exclusively from the working class and oppressed peoples—and were met with ferocious condemnation from the United States and its allies. When those same forces of reaction now call for a “boycott” of Beijing 2022, they leave no doubt as to what they actually fear: a rising China challenging their heretofore untrammeled domination of global sport.
China’s long Olympic battle for legitimacy
In 1949 the Communist Party of China decisively prevailed over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) after 22 years of civil war, forcing the latter to flee to Taiwan. The founding of the People’s Republic brought a definitive end to a “century of humiliation” inaugurated by the First Opium War, which had seen colonial powers reduce China to the “sick man of Asia.” This sickness had been a byword for the weakness, internal rupture, and forced narcotic dependency of the Chinese body politic—transposed inevitably onto the racialized Chinese body.
Overcoming these scars, in all their physical and psychological manifestations, was the guiding principle for sports policy in the People’s Republic. Only through this lens can we understand why it fought in such an obstinate, pugnacious, and unabashedly political way for a place in the Olympic movement on its own sovereign terms. China turned the Games into a battleground in its contest for legitimacy with the KMT regime on Taiwan and its imperialist backers, elevating the dispute to “the main burden of Olympism” in the words of IOC chancellor Otto Mayer. As with the parallel struggle for recognition by the United Nations, this one ended after three eventful decades in unqualified triumph.
The KMT-led Republic of China had sent a solitary athlete to the 1932 Los Angeles Games, followed by larger delegations in 1936 and 1948—the latter, incredibly, as the KMT was losing the most decisive campaigns of the civil war to the Communists. After the regime’s flight to Taiwan, its National Olympic Committee (NOC) gave the IOC pro forma notice that it had relocated to Taipei with no further explanation. Throughout this period, the Soviet Union had pointedly snubbed the “bourgeois” IOC in favor of organizing its own proletarian Red Sport International, complete with “Spartakiad” games to rival the Olympics. But by Helsinki 1952, the Soviets were ready to join the existing Olympic movement in force (ultimately finishing a close second to the U.S. in the medal count) and duly urged the fledgling PRC to do so as well.
From its very first approach, the People’s Republic boldly insisted on what would become known as the one-China policy: that it was the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese nation including KMT-occupied Taiwan. The IOC ultimately fudged on the question and extended a last-minute invitation to Beijing as well as Taipei. Nonetheless Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai personally approved the decision to send a team, which arrived in Helsinki the day before the closing ceremony and could not take part in any competition. But merely being there was an unalloyed boon to the PRC’s legitimacy, especially as the rival Taipei-based National Olympic Committee had withdrawn in protest. Avery Brundage, then vice president of the IOC, complained bitterly that “I did everything in my power to prevent them from taking part. Unfortunately, I had only one vote and because many others present did not feel the same way I was out-voted.”
This initial success was not to be repeated. At Melbourne 1956 it was the PRC’s turn to withdraw in protest as Taipei’s delegation insisted on competing under the name “Republic of China.” Two years later, Chinese IOC delegate Dong Shouyi entered into a bracing war of words with Brundage, calling him “a faithful menial of the U.S. imperialists bent on serving their plot of creating ‘two Chinas’” in a resignation letter that concluded:
A man like you, who stains the Olympic spirit and violates the Olympic Charter, has no qualification whatsoever to be IOC president … I feel pained that the IOC is today controlled by an imperialist like you and consequently the Olympic spirit has been grossly trampled upon. To uphold the Olympic spirit and tradition, I hereby declare that I will no longer cooperate with you or have any connection with the IOC while it is under your domination.
Dong would not be the last Chinese representative to evoke an idealized “Olympic spirit” in opposition to the Americans who arguably embodied the real one in all its racist ugliness. He would, however, be the last Chinese delegate to serve on the IOC until 1979.
Interestingly, this two-decade hiatus (which actually amounted to a 28-year absence from the Olympic Games) saw the two most severe diplomatic incidents surrounding the China question at the IOC. Both centered on the KMT regime’s untenable claim to represent the entire Chinese nation as the “Republic of China,” and both ended in bitter defeats for it, even as Beijing was de facto boycotting the entire Olympic movement. In effect, the PRC substituted state-to-state diplomacy—first with the Soviet bloc and then with Western powers after the Sino-Soviet split—for a formal presence within the institutions, closely mirroring its geopolitical strategy.
The first episode occurred in 1959, not long after Dong Shouyi’s angry resignation, when Soviet delegates to the IOC insisted that Taipei’s NOC change its name on the self-evident grounds that it “[could not] possibly supervise sports in mainland China.” The IOC as a whole readily agreed, with even the arch-anticommunist Avery Brundage reluctantly assenting. The U.S. mainstream press exploded in outrage; absurdly, Brundage himself was deluged with hate mail alleging he had succumbed to “communist blackmail.” The State Department called the decision “a clear act of political discrimination” and even President Dwight Eisenhower condemned it. But the decision stood, and the whole affair ended in another embarrassing fudge, with Taipei competing under the name “Taiwan” at Rome 1960 and quietly reverting to “Republic of China” thereafter.
The second, even more damaging incident took place in the lead-up to Montreal 1976. After establishing diplomatic relations in 1970, the PRC informed Canada in no uncertain terms that the Taipei NOC should not be allowed to compete as the “Republic of China.” After lobbying earnestly but unsuccessfully for the IOC to recognize Beijing instead of Taipei, Pierre Trudeau’s government proposed that athletes from Taiwan compete under the neutral Olympic flag. The IOC grudgingly assented at the last minute, but not before debating whether to move the Games to the U.S. or cancel them entirely; the Taipei NOC angrily withdrew.
Official reactions from Canada’s domineering southern neighbor were again apoplectic. U.S. President Gerald Ford and the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee seriously discussed the possibility of boycotting or trying to take over the Games at the last minute. This of course did not come to pass, but Canada took a significant reputational hit in the United States—a testament to China’s growing ability to exploit contradictions within the imperialist bloc. Canada’s independent China policy under Pierre Trudeau stood in stark contrast with that of his son Justin, who marched in shameful lockstep first with Trump’s judicial kidnapping of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, and now with Biden’s “diplomatic boycott” of Beijing 2022 over Xinjiang.
Ironically, just a few years after savaging the Canadians, the U.S. would follow in their footsteps by establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic and (formally) cutting ties with Taipei under the one-China policy. This paved the way for the IOC to resolve the two-China question later in 1979 in its own unique way: by readmitting Beijing and allowing athletes from Taiwan to compete under the name “Chinese Taipei.” Deng Xiaoping personally approved this compromise in an early foretaste of the future “one country, two systems” settlements that would return Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty.
The PRC’s delayed return to the Olympic movement, contingent in many ways on bilateral ties with the U.S., contrasted sharply from its triumphant entry into the UN in 1971. On that occasion, an impressive coalition of African and other Third World countries—many fresh from their own national liberation struggles—had secured recognition for Beijing and expulsion of the KMT regime over the strident objections of the U.S. and most of its allies. By 1979, however, the basis for unity within the socialist and non-aligned camps had so thoroughly collapsed that China and many other Global South countries readily joined the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.
Instead, mainland China made its long-delayed and triumphant return to Olympic competition at Los Angeles 1984—a Games remembered locally as an orgy of Reaganite neoliberalism, American jingoism (amplified by the Soviet-led boycott), and militarized police terror that helped create the conditions for the 1992 Rodney King uprising. They nonetheless marked a high point in U.S.-China relations, with PRC athletes being warmly feted by the hosts. This goodwill was not dampened in the slightest when the women’s volleyball team sensationally defeated the hosts to win gold, in one of the most iconic moments of Chinese sports history. There was ample reason to believe, even after the trauma of the 1989 Tiananmen incident and subsequent U.S. sanctions, that enough of it remained to propel Beijing to victory in its first bid to host the Olympics.
Beijing’s Olympics and the poverty of “human rights” discourse
Unfortunately by the time Beijing launched its bid for the 2000 Olympics, U.S. policy had begun to shift perceptibly from the honeymoon years of rapprochement. Gone was the incentive for even arch-reactionaries like Nixon and Reagan to embrace the PRC effusively in the name of hard-nosed anti-Soviet realpolitik. With the end of the first Cold War, anticommunism also receded as a guiding framework for U.S. imperial rhetoric, in favor of a universalized (if richly hypocritical) weaponization of neoliberal “human rights.” This was a discursive terrain tilted heavily toward bourgeois democracies in the imperial core, on which China was hardly more equipped to compete than it had been in the Mao era.
Sure enough, the U.S. mainstream press united in opposition to Beijing’s bid, with the New York Times anticipating the facile and now-omnipresent analogies with Nazi Germany: “The city in question is Beijing in the year 2000, but the answer is Berlin 1936.” Bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress vehemently urged the IOC to reject the bid on human rights grounds. In the event, Beijing led in every round of voting until the last, when it narrowly lost to Sydney 45-43. It later emerged that the Sydney organizing committee had not only secured the two-vote margin via outright bribery (par for the course for the IOC), but had secretly commissioned an anti-China smear campaign laundered through a London-based human rights group. The bonds between white Anglo settler colonies prevailed, and Sydney 2000 became the stage for a truly noxious whitewashing of Australia’s genocide against Aboriginal peoples.
Still smarting from its defeat and the naked hypocrisy of Western powers around the “politicization” of the Games, Beijing nonetheless forged ahead with a bid for the 2008 Olympics. This time it won with ease, aided by widespread sympathy for the circumstances of the 2000 loss, as well as a slick PR campaign designed to neutralize the attack lines that had sunk its previous attempt. Bid committee official Wang Wei assured the IOC that “with the Games coming to China, not only are they going to promote the economy, but also enhance all the social sectors, including education, medical care and human rights.” Despite strenuous efforts to weaponize large-scale unrest in Tibet in the months leading up to the Games, even limited boycott appeals from Western campaign groups went nowhere. The 2008 Beijing Olympics went down in history as China’s “coming-out party” and a seminal moment in its growing self-confidence as a rising world power.
It is telling that Jules Boykoff, on whose work in Power Games I have relied so heavily, makes no mention at all of this widespread popular perception of the Beijing Games or their significance in the broader arc of Chinese history. Instead he treats them as an exclusively elite project and focuses entirely on critical narratives, a tendency he has doubled down on in his most recent commentary on Beijing 2022. Possibly the most revealing line is his response to Beijing’s assurances from the 2008 bid: “This human-rights dreamscape never arrived. It’s telling that today, neither China nor the IOC are vowing that the Olympics will spur democracy.” It does not occur to Boykoff to see this as a positive development: that China’s growing confidence in its own model frees it from the need to address Western imperialists in their favored (and deeply hypocritical) discursive terms. As the New York Times put it succinctly, “Where the government once sought to mollify its critics to make the Games a success, today it defies them…China then sought to meet the world’s terms. Now the world must accept China’s.”
This reflects a broader analytical lacuna in campaigns that take the Olympics themselves as an undifferentiated political target: they fail to account for the positions of different host countries vis-à-vis the imperialist world system. To flatten “the Olympics” or “human rights” as universal categories is effectively to privilege normative Western understandings of both. In practice this leads to grossly uneven and asymmetrical treatment of Olympics hosted by self-styled democracies in the imperial core—historically the overwhelming majority—versus the few that are not. To be sure, local anti-Olympics campaign groups are undoubtedly justified in fighting the social dislocations they bring to host cities everywhere. (Full disclosure: I have previously worked with one such group, NOlympics LA, which does valuable work connecting the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics to gentrification and racialized policing.)
But where was the outrage over the illegal U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, when Salt Lake City hosted in 2002? Over Britain’s war crimes there and in Iraq, when London hosted in 2012? Over Japan’s continued refusal to acknowledge its colonial crimes against humanity, when Tokyo hosted in 2021? The indictment of entire host countries as “human-rights nightmares” (Boykoff’s crude label for China and Kazakhstan, when Beijing and Almaty wound up as the only finalists for 2022) seems to be reserved for nations outside the imperial core. The nascent transnational anti-Olympics movement must overcome these ideological blinders if it is ever to match the coherence of the great anti-racist mobilizations that shook the IOC in the 1960s and ‘70s. Presently there seems little cause for hope, with leading figures like Boykoff and his fellow “left” sportswriter Dave Zirin uncritically propagating State Department lines on both Xinjiang and Peng Shuai in their coverage leading up to Beijing 2022.
Postscript: New Emerging Forces
I have intentionally saved for the end what is possibly the most fascinating historical episode I uncovered in my research. What, you might ask, was the People’s Republic of China up to in the world of international sport during its two decades in the Olympic wilderness? The story of “ping-pong diplomacy” with the United States and other Western powers is already well-documented, reflecting an obvious Northern historiographical bias. But in an age of growing calls for “decoupling” between China and the West, and for South-South cooperation via the Belt and Road Initiative among other projects, the buried history we must uncover is that of the Games of the New Emerging Forces (GANEFO).
GANEFO emerged from a bold act of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist solidarity by the Indonesian government of Sukarno, the visionary anticolonial leader and co-founder of the Non-Aligned Movement. In 1962, Indonesia, as hosts, pointedly refused to invite Israel and the Taipei-based KMT regime to the fourth Asian Games and was summarily suspended from the IOC. In response, Sukarno proclaimed that
The International Olympic Games have proved to be openly an imperialistic tool … Now let’s frankly say, sports have something to do with politics. Indonesia proposes now to mix sports with politics, and let us now establish the Games of the New Emerging Forces, the GANEFO … against the Old Established Order.
His bracing rhetoric paralleled Dong Shouyi’s earlier broadside against Avery Brundage, but shorn of any residual attachment to a mystical “Olympic spirit.” China enthusiastically jumped in to help organize and promote GANEFO in 1963, covering travel costs to Jakarta for 2,200 athletes from 48 countries, overwhelmingly based in the Global South. It left with a bumper crop of athletic victories—topping the overall medal table, followed by the Soviet second-string squad and the Indonesian hosts—and effusive goodwill from athletes across the emerging Third World.
There would never be another GANEFO, owing to the horrific U.S.-backed coup that ousted Sukarno and installed Suharto’s military dictatorship in 1965. But this piece of history remains more vital than ever to recover. Because the lesson of Beijing 2022 and the moves toward a diplomatic boycott, however farcical, is that the U.S. and its Northern clients will never fully accept China as a legitimate member of their elite club. In their current position as hosts, PRC officials may feel understandably constrained in denouncing the “politicization” of the Games. But they and the Chinese people should never forget that politicizing the Olympics is a long, hallowed tradition for the workers and oppressed nations of the world. The People’s Republic of China has a storied place in that tradition of which it can be justly proud.