Feb 5, 2022 - News

Colorado experts: Geopolitics and fear dominate Olympic narrative

Illustration of barbed wire in the shape of the IOC logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With more than 20 Colorado competitors attending the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, local experts are weighing in on the geopolitical landscape, dynamics and risks associated with this year's host country.

Why it matters: "[H]istorically, sports and politics are deeply intertwined," said professor Timothy Sisk, who teaches international and comparative politics at the University of Denver.

  • "We think about the Olympic Games as the vehicle by which sport leads to peace ... but [it] reinforces an international system of rivalry and dominance."

The big picture: The U.S. and its partners are concerned about the Chinese government's authoritarian rise — a cloud overshadowing this year's Games and imbuing the event with an undercurrent of power struggles and fear, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Kendall Baker write.

  • The Games are taking place as China stands accused of human rights abuses against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, online censorship threats, and as the Omicron variant surges.

Meanwhile, numerous governments around the world, including the U.S., have announced diplomatic boycotts of the Games.

  • "Human Rights Watch labeled these the 'Genocide Games,'" Sisk said, adding that 2022's event "harkens back to 1936 in Berlin when the Olympics went on in Nazi Germany just four years before the onset of the Second World War."

Yes, but: Sisk called the boycotts "half measures," that are mostly of "symbolic value."

  • "I think the diplomatic boycott is stupid and wrong," said professor Suisheng Zhao, director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at DU. "We send such a large number of athletes to China, but then we say the government does not care. That does not make sense."
  • The United States has "our own human rights issues" that require attention, Zhao added.

What to watch: As governments haggle over public messaging and diplomatic action, Olympic athletes contend with their own ethics and reputations.

  • So far, athletes have largely avoided addressing their political and social concerns amid the threat of punishment from the Chinese government.
  • Sisk anticipates competitors will remain "muted" and expected to "just shut up and play."

Zoom out: The Chinese government has promised athletes free access to social media and the web within Olympic Village, but Internet use in the country is fraught with restrictions and risks.

  • Chinese law gives authorities the flexibility to prohibit any online speech deemed illegal.

What they're saying: "I think the best thing to do is really just to be pretty easygoing about it," Denver-based U.S. Hockey Team member Nick Shore told Alayna. "I'm not sure if anybody knows exactly what to expect ... I think I'm just ready for anything."

  • Security experts recommend that athletes use burner phones, virtual private networks, avoid sharing sensitive information, and more.

The bottom line, via Sisk: "There's no getting around it: There will be politics in these Olympic games."


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