A favorite parlor game for those of us in international relations and global studies is trying to answer the question of what Western powers should do about China. Undoubtedly, the once dubbed “sleeping dragon” has awoken and shaken up the international order with its aggressive economic policy, alarming espionage efforts, and anti-democratic ideology. Some academics argue that economic integration is best; others suggest a heightened military presence in the South China Sea and bolstered cyberwarfare capabilities. Former President Trump attempted to shackle China through a controversial tit-for-tat trade war. But if there is one thing that China desires above all else, it is legitimacy in the eyes of the global community, and the West fails to properly leverage that desire.
In February 2022, the Chinese will host the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing. Similarly, when China hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008, the eyes of the world will be fixated on this divisive global superpower. These games present a rare combination of the cultural and commercial leverage for America and our Western allies. Such a position of strength should be utilized to affect a real change in China’s increasingly aggressive, imbalanced, and often immoral behavior. To do so, the Western alliance must provide a constructive list of requirements to the Chinese regime, while also fortifying the unified determination to follow through on a boycott if demands are not met.
If China does not fulfill these requests, the United States and our allies should withhold our athletic delegations and embarrass China on one of the world’s greatest stages. That’s no easy task, possibly resulting in a hard-to-stomach sacrifice. But it can be done—and it must!
Without a doubt, there is a massive sacrifice from the athletes to fulfill this plan. For each, a potent mix of both sweat and resource equity is on the line, comprised of a full lifetime of dedication, dollars, and devotion to one’s respective sport—something no politician or C-Suite executive can match. And that true skin-in-the-game is the reason athletes should lead such a gutsy initiative. They deserve that right. An athlete-led boycott may prove the best mechanism for changing the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as alternative methods have failed historically.
For perspective, U.S. Naval War College Professor Nicholas Evan Sarantakes highlights President Jimmy Carter’s misguided boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, in his book, “Dropping the Torch.” The decision caused only turmoil and contempt among U.S. allies and ultimately failed to remove the Soviet Union from Afghanistan. And currently, the Biden administration has not signaled plans to boycott the 2022 Winter Games. Yet, at the same time, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposes a “Right Way to Boycott,” which, rather than penalize athletes with a complete boycott, he recommends targeted boycotts, allowing the athletes to compete while limiting non-athlete attendance and conducting non-traditional diplomatic engagements as forms of economic and diplomatic embargos.
For Carter, a politician-led boycott failed to get results. As for Biden, no hard decision has been made, nor has a true opportunity to negotiate been recognized. And with Romney, only a half-pregnant strategy has been presented. All three examples prove the complexity and compromise involved as government leaders debate the best path forward.
The 1980 Olympic hockey hero Mike Eruzione actually advises no form of boycott at all. He argues that by beating the Chinese, especially on their home turf, a humbling embarrassment for the CCP would result, creating face-saving leverage to negotiate. Eruzione argues that “Miracle on Ice” ranks near the top in the pantheon of U.S. sports history and boosted America’s confidence during tough times.
Though Romney and Eruzione take different approaches, both recommend U.S. athletes represent our nation in Beijing, or, at least, possess the choice. That unique common ground is also very American, as our athletes compete in a free market. Emerging athletes choose their field of play without direction from a central government or Ministry of Sports. In fact, the core values of our nation prevent our government from banning the competition rights of an athlete and the right to spectate as a fan. Just imagine an American athlete ignoring a ban, choosing instead to participate under a neutral flag. Then think of determined U.S. fans still attending, waving our nation’s flag. The Chinese media would be giddy of such a scene, boastfully broadcasting the sight of Americans defying their own government.
Therefore, let the athletes follow their collective conscience. If they want to compete, let them. If they don’t, back the boycott with vigor, with a true, united front. As no matter the sport or athlete, amateur or pro, they all must decide together, with a democratic vote. The outcome will then determine our nation’s ability to make demands of the CCP that must be satisfied for athletes to attend.
We are hopeful our athletes elect to force China’s hand by creating the necessary leverage of a potential boycott. If realized, our politicians can then work on what those requirements will be. Then those can be presented to the CCP with the threat of a voluntary boycott by our athletes as a punishing deterrent.
Agree, we come. Refuse, we boycott.
Recent activism by athletes has shifted the balance of power away from team owners and various governments. Such protests successfully removed owners, changed All-Star Game locations, and reversed uniform requirements. If the world’s athletes project a unified front and a codified message threatening the status quo with non-attendance, then Beijing would have no choice but to change their behavior or suffer international embarrassment.
And for the athletes, doing the right thing can also be rewarding. Whereas John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Mohammed Ali suffered personally and financially for their activism, current cases show that’s no longer the norm. In fact, recent athlete activism has expanded personal brands, increasing income as a result.
So, in short, we should let the athletes decide. And if that choice provides the redline leverage of a boycott, we could witness the biggest game-changer of all—a Chinese Communist Party in retreat.
So, to our nation’s great athletes … as Nike would say, “Just Do It!”
Chris Fenton, a long-time media executive and U.S.–China expert, often lectures the “National Security & Sports” course at the National War College. He’s also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee on U.S.–China Relations, as well as a trustee of the US-Asia Institute. Twitter: @TheDragonFeeder.
Corey Ray is a Captain in the U.S. Navy and an assistant professor at the National War College where he teaches courses in National Security Strategy Logic. He created a course that combines contextual analysis viewed through the unique lens of sports and the application of sports as non-military instrument of national power to design strategies addressing contemporary security challenges. Twitter: @CoreyW_Ray.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.