Talk of U.S. Olympic boycott reminds us sports, politics are entwined. And that’s good | Opinion

Greg Cote
·4 min read

The United States and allies weigh boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics n China.

Megan Rapinoe rips Draymond Green’s pay-gap comments.

Major League Baseball moves its All-Star Game from Atlanta because of a new voting law.

Remember when sports stuck to sports and didn’t mess with politics?

Yeah, me neither.

Those simpler times, a.k.a. good old days, are a fallacy, a figment. In my lifetime, at least. (And chances are pretty good I’m older than you).

They are snapshot memories in black and white.

Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali in 1964 and later refusing military induction to object to the Vietnam War.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos with black-gloved fists raised from the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics.

Billie Jean King’s 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match a shot fired for gender equality.

The inseparability of sports and politics always has existed; it only seems magnified now because ESPN and social media and the rest make it all instant and amplified.

The NBA leading sports’ major role in the Black Lives Matter protests last summer — it wasn’t new. It was closer to the continuation of a long-standing tradition.

LeBron James refusing to “shut up and dribble” and only speaking out louder when you tell him to — Ali is looking down and smiling.

Rapinoe, the women’s soccer star, schooling the NBA star Green over his tone-deaf take on the fight for equal pay — that baton has passed from many hands since Billie Jean King.

Jackie Robinson was a very good ballplayer but also one who never hit 20 home runs in a season. He is a towering baseball legend for a reason larger than sports.

Colin Kaepernick had a template of forebears. He did not invent social conscience. But he accepted the baton, as someone always must.

In the long parade of mostly forgettable athletes there have always been the standout few declining to be there solely for our entertainment. Those who understand their platform, their stage, invites a larger and louder calling.

As an extension of player activism, it should not surprise when teams get involved. Like Rapinoe’s World Cup-winning USWNT taking on equal pay. Or like the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream literally getting political to defeat its far-right part owner at the polls.

And as an extension of that it should not surprise when leagues are out front on a cause. Like the NBA last summer after George Floyd. Or like MLB last week, moving its All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest Georgia’s new voting law.

The new law is a necessary safeguard against fraud to some, blatant voter suppression to others. The point is that athletes and leagues (and businesses, and you, and I) are free to pick a side and be as involved or outraged as we choose. Or not.

Of course, the ultimate mix of sports and politics happens every two years, in winter or summer, with the Olympics and talk of governments boycotting.

At least seven Olympiads starting with Berlin in 1936 have been boycotted by a few to many countries. The list famously (or infamously) includes the United States leading a massive 65-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Forty-two years later, there is now some talk of the United States perhaps boycotting the 2022 Winter Games scheduled for February 4-20 in Beijing to protest China’s well-documented human rights violations against Tibetans, Uighur Muslims and the people of Hong Kong.

President Biden would discuss a possible boycott with allies, State Department spokesman Ned King said Tuesday — although by later that same day the State Department seemed to walk back the notion of a boycott. We shall see how Biden will handle the migraine that would be American participation in what some have coined the “Genocide Olympics.”

China’s violations of course also bring shame to the many sports entities that do business there, including the otherwise progressive NBA. commissioner Adam Silver’s stances on Black Lives Matter and on China seem clearly at odds on the moral compass.

The controversy over China hosting an Olympics is mindful of the controversy over Qatar hosting FIFA men’s World Cup later in 2022. Qatar also has a lousy human rights record (which is why in a previous column I criticized Inter Miami CEO David Beckham for reportedly agreeing to be a paid ambassador to Qatar for that World Cup).

Qatar being awarded that prestigious, globally significant soccer tournament can be blamed on the documented widespread corruption within FIFA that has since caused a shakeup in that governing body.

What is the excuse of the International Olympic Committee for blessing China as its next host?

IOC president Thomas Bach calls the Olympics “a values-based organization” that stands for “the values of excellence, respect and fair play.”

Alas, those supposed ideals are now in bed with China, whose respect and fair play on human rights is in grave question.

The good news? Boycott or not, China hosting an Olympics will only shine a light on those violations.

The long, proud tradition in sports — athletes with the courage to speak out -- will make sure of that.