Published December 8, 2021
George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference
In July 2016, as we were sitting on the fantail of the Swiss sidewheeler Rhone while she chugged across Lake Geneva, my host pointed out the city of Lausanne, where a massive, glass-bedecked curvilinear building was shimmering in the summer sun. “Isn’t that the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee?” I asked. When my friend replied in the affirmative, I said, “I thought I smelled it.”
That rank odor—the stench of greed overpowering the solidarity the Olympics claim to represent—has intensified recently.
Even the casual student of modern Olympic history knows about the August 1936 Berlin Games, at which America’s Jesse Owens, a black man, took four gold medals and trashed Hitler’s Aryan supremacy myth. Fewer may be aware that, in February that year, the Olympic Winter Games were held in the Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. How, we ask today, could two Olympics be held in the Third Reich? How could people not know?
There was some controversy about holding the summer and winter Olympics under Nazi auspices. But in 1936, the German situation was not as comprehensively ghastly as it would become in later years. Yes, the Dachau concentration camp for political prisoners had opened in March 1933, and the Nuremberg Laws banning Jews from German citizenship and prohibiting marriage between Jews and “Aryans” had been enacted in 1935. The horrors of the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938 were two years in the future, however, and the satanic Wannsee Conference to plan the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” would come six years later. Clear-minded people ought to have discerned some of the implications of the Nuremberg Laws. But the industrialized mass slaughter of millions, simply because they were children of Abraham, was beyond the imagination of virtually everyone.
So Hitler and his thugs temporarily behaved themselves (sort of) in the run-up to the Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berlin Olympics. And the International Olympic Committee could salve whatever conscience it had in those days and proceed with the games.
The IOC has no excuses today, two months before the XXIV Olympic Winter Games open in Beijing. Because today, everyone knows.
Anyone paying the slightest attention to world affairs knows what the Xi Jinping regime is doing in China. It is carrying out a brutal campaign of cultural genocide against the Uyghurs, herding over a million of them into re-education camps where torture is not uncommon. It has abrogated human rights in Hong Kong and imprisoned pro-democracy leaders there, including my friend Jimmy Lai (a brave Catholic still awaiting a public word of support from the Vatican). Xi’s regime conducts massive, continuous surveillance of its own people, in history’s most draconian effort at Orwellian social control; last month, for example, Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared for days after charging on social media that she’d been raped by a high Chinese Communist party official. China is saber-rattling throughout its neighborhood and constantly threatens Taiwan. And does any sane person believe the Chinese government is telling the full truth about China’s relationship to a pandemic that has, to date, killed 5.5 million people worldwide, massively disrupted the world economy, and created untold social and mental distress everywhere?
The reductio ad Hitlerum is a cheap rhetorical device to be avoided. So let’s just say that holding the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing in February 2022 will be an obscenity. There are no excuses this time. The information culture of 1936 was nothing like today’s transparent world; in 1936, the truth about Nazi Germany was, if not hidden, then less glaringly apparent than it would be today. Everyone knows what is going on in Xi Jinping’s China. To proceed as if that knowledge can be bracketed for a few weeks is gross moral cowardice.
Some months ago, I signed a petition asking the IOC to move the XXIV Olympic Winter Games from China. That is not going to happen. What, then, can be done? Make Xi Jinping and his techno-thugocracy pay for all the attention their country will get during the games. The world media should shine a spotlight on China’s human rights abuses, its draconian methods of social monitoring, and its religious intolerance. Athletes from free countries should be supported by their national Olympic committees if, as they ought, they speak out in solidarity with the Uyghurs in concentration camps, with persecuted Christians throughout China, and with the hard-pressed human rights and democracy activists of Hong Kong.
The IOC bosses will squeal. Let them. Exposing their craven kowtowing would nicely complement publicizing communist China’s brutality before the world.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.