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Rather than projecting the image of unification that is always a fundamental aspect of the Olympics messaging, this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing are stressing the many divisions that define today’s geopolitical landscape.
Since their inception in ancient Greece, the Olympic Games have been used as a tool for peace promotion. The 2022 Winter Olympics opening ceremony last week reflected this narrative, boasting the event’s ability to “bring us together… all of us building bridges [to]become stronger.” Yet despite the overarching theme of unity that characterizes the Games, the event is only drawing attention to the array and depth of challenges facing the international community in 2022.
The setting of the global pandemic is challenging enough in itself. The location in Beijing complicates things further. The Winter 2022 Games is China’s opportunity to prove itself as a great power and leader, and to take advantage of the instability of the international status quo. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have already used the Games to call for a halt to NATO expansion, holding bilateral talks in a show of partnership against the West on the same day as the opening ceremony. Arguments that the Games’ operation under an authoritarian regime will actually help keep COVID-19 cases down are symbolic of larger discussions surrounding the viability (and rise) of non-democratic nations.
The global attitude towards China as an Olympic host stands in stark contrast to when China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008. Those Games were billed as a chance for China to be more open, as a nation on the rise seeking its place of power with Western nations. Now, as Professor Rana Pitter of Oxford University observed “China is no longer seeking entry into the international community. It is an embedded senior member.”
China has also fallen out of favor with the United States and its allies in recent years over human rights and basic freedoms violations.
China has also fallen out of favor with the United States and its allies in recent years over human rights and basic freedoms violations. Human rights organizations all over the world have denounced China’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, with many labeling China’s actions as genocide. The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia are all diplomatically boycotting the games as a result.
Despite the diplomatic position Western nations are taking against China, their athletes are still competing in the Games. For the most part, the athletes have kept their heads down and have not made public statements regarding politics, stirring controversy over China’s ongoing suppression of free speech. The athletes are under pressure to use their platform to advocate for human rights on one hand, while on the other hand they are under threat of the Chinese government to abide by restrictive Chinese laws while they are in Beijing. This issue is exemplified by the disappearance of professional tennis player Peng Shuai after she accused a Chinese political leader of sexual assault back in November of 2021. The Chinese government’s intimidation of the Olympic athletes, including Peng Shuai, is intensifying fears surrounding the apparent crackdown on free speech and democracy at large throughout China.
The Games are also drawing further attention to the various other diplomatic tensions and political standoffs that characterize today’s foreign affairs. Putin’s appearance in the Olympic stands in Beijing, observing the opening ceremony, was a jarring sight amid reports of Russian troops massing at the Russia-Ukraine border and growing concern over the possibility of invasion.
The idea of the Olympics as a tool for peace is clearly at odds with the reality of the global climate surrounding this year’s Winter Games. The event has inflamed existing controversies and hostilities, heightening the perception of global tensions. While the Olympics are intended to have a pacifying effect during tense periods of global conflict, this year’s Games are only affirming just how far we are from a unified world.
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