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The spotlight on the International Olympic Committee is going to be mighty uncomfortable these next 11 months, and president Thomas Bach and his buddies have no one to blame but themselves.
Criticism of 2022 Olympics host Beijing escalated Monday when U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for an American economic and diplomatic boycott of the next Winter Games over China’s raft of human rights violations.
It’s too late to strip Beijing of the 2022 Olympics, Romney wrote, and full-scale boycotts make little impact. But Romney said that doesn’t mean the rest of the Olympic movement, led by the United States, should simply shrug its shoulders and say, “Oh well!”
“Limiting spectators, selectively shaping our respective delegations and refraining from broadcasting Chinese propaganda would prevent China from reaping many of the rewards it expects from the Olympics,” Romney wrote, urging American fans to stay home, sponsors to skip the glitzy junkets and President Joseph Biden to send a delegation of dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities.
“Let us demonstrate our repudiation of China’s abuses in a way that will hurt the Chinese Communist Party rather than our American athletes: reduce China’s revenues, shut down their propaganda, and expose their abuses.”
Giving weight to Romney’s call for a targeted boycott of the Beijing Games is that he is not just another craven politician jumping on the bandwagon in hopes of scoring points. (Yes, Florida politicians lobbying for the Tokyo Olympics to be moved, I’m talking to you.)
Romney is an Olympic insider, having served as president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Games. He is intimately familiar with how the IOC works and, given how entrenched the organization is, it’s a good bet his phone is still filled with high-powered contacts from the Olympic world.
Bach cannot simply throw up his hands at Romney’s suggestion and say that bringing China into line is above the IOC’s pay grade, because Romney knows better. By explaining why a U.S. team boycott of Beijing would be both futile and unfair, even if action against China is warranted, Romney was speaking the IOC’s own language. By extolling the high-minded virtues of the Olympics – he called them “enduring demonstrations of the great qualities of the human spirit on the world stage: We witness determination, sacrifice, patriotism, endurance, sportsmanship” – he was appealing to the vanities of Bach and other IOC members.
The IOC is never going to do the right thing unless forced to by one of its own, and Romney might be as close as it gets.
Bach can decry politics all he wants, but he and the IOC have repeatedly tried to use the Olympic Games to nudge authoritarian nations toward democracy and reform. But, as Romney pointed out, they have failed miserably.
“The I.O.C. has hoped that awarding Games to repressive regimes would tend to lessen their abuses. But hope has too often met a different reality — in Hitler’s Germany, Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China,” Romney wrote. “In authoritarian states, the Olympics has more often been a tool of propaganda than a lever of reform.”
That falls squarely at the feet of Bach and the rest of the IOC.
The mere threat of yanking the Olympics would have caused colossal embarrassment for Chinese president Xi Jinping, and might have convinced him to ease up on Hong Kong and the Uighurs, even if it was only through 2022. But at a time when most countries have wised up to the extravagance of hosting an Olympics, Bach and the IOC don’t want to risk offending the despots who are still willing to foot the bill for their lavish parties.
So they pretended their decision to ignore abuses leading up to and during the Summer Games in 2008 didn’t embolden China. When pressed to hold China accountable, they claimed to lack the influence they are otherwise proud to tout.
Romney is right. With less than a year before the Beijing Games begin and the world still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s too late to move the Olympics. But that doesn’t mean the Olympic movement lacks influence.
If Bach and his IOC brethren are too scared to exercise it, then the rest of the world must.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mitt Romney calls for targeted boycotts of 2022 Beijing Olympics