Why stripping China of the 2022 Olympics isn't going to happen

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan have already been postponed for one year due to the coronavirus. Are the 2022 Winter Games scheduled for China at risk as well?

In this case the threat is political more than pandemic — 22 months should (hopefully) be enough time to develop a vaccine against the virus.

Yet there has been a slow rumbling of late about the world punishing China for its lack of transparency during the early days of the outbreak by stripping the country of the Games.

The argument goes that if the Chinese had been more forthcoming during the early days of the coronavirus, it could have been contained before overwhelming the world. Taking away the Olympics would be more of a symbolic rebuke causing more of an historic embarrassment than economic pain — although infrastructure and planning outlays are no doubt already in the billions.

President Donald Trump was even asked directly about “China [being] stripped as host of the 2022 Olympics” at a press briefing last Friday.

“We have a lot of discussions going on with China,” Trump answered. “Let me just put it this way: I'm not happy, OK? I'm not happy. And I spoke to them. And this could have been shut down a long time ago. They knew it. And we couldn't get in. ... No, I'm not happy with China.”

While Trump is famous for changing his mind 180 degrees (and then changing back), the answer (or non-direct answer) suggests there is little thought or appetite toward the move.

Trump has also praised the Chinese in general, President Xi Jinping in specific and also last week suggested it’s complicated assigning blame.

“Was it a mistake that got out of control or was it done deliberately?” Trump said. “OK? It's a big difference between those two.”

So nothing. Yet.

And that’s probably a good thing.

While trying to lead the charge to punish China might serve as a salve for some people’s anger, it’s unlikely the IOC would agree to do it, leaves plenty of unanswered questions and may be needlessly antagonistic at a time when the United States can’t afford to alienate China — especially over something as unimportant as a future sporting event.

Start with the effectiveness. Olympic host sites are determined by the votes of International Olympic Committee members, not the governments of the world. IOC members are private citizens. To pull an Olympics would require intense IOC will and the organization has never shown even the faintest concern about politics, honesty, human rights, environmental decency or pretty much anything else.

Generally, the country that wines, dines and even bribes the most members gets to host the Olympics. There is also the likelihood that many, or even most IOC members, don’t blame China for the pandemic. They may be more of Trump’s current mind that as frustrating as this is, mistakes happen.

The Beijing Winter Olympic Games are scheduled to open on Feb. 4, 2022. (AP)
The Beijing Winter Olympic Games are scheduled to open on Feb. 4, 2022. (AP)

Moreover, the IOC is already in a crisis. The postponement of the 2020 Summer Games has left everything unsettled, including finances. Tokyo was poised to be a hugely successful operation, both aesthetically and financially. Now there is no guarantee that 2021 is even possible — if there is no vaccine by next spring, can it go off? And the world economy seems set for a recession, if not worse.

To then mess with the 2022 Games, where China provides a bedrock certainty that it will occur, would be a further risk to the bottomline. And the IOC is all about the bottomline.

So why attempt a full-on attack if the chances of it succeeding are low?

Where the Games would even go if it was pulled from Beijing? That may not matter to critics of China, but it sure does to the IOC. Someone has to host this thing and to do so is a multiyear, multibillion-dollar exercise. You don’t just flip on the lights. Perhaps the only country with the majority of the infrastructure in place for such a quick turnaround would be South Korea, which hosted the 2018 Winter Games.

Even then, many central construction projects have been repurposed — the athlete village, for example, is now a vast apartment complex. South Korea, which may have lost as much as $10 billion on the 2018 Games, would have to spend billions (in a rural/resort area of the country that probably didn’t even need the original construction) all so it can lose even more money, during an economic downturn, while angering the political and economic giant next door.

How about the next Winter Games after Beijing, could they speed things up? That’s 2026 in Milan-Cortina in Northern Italy, ground zero for devastation at the hands of the virus. So forget it.

Could the U.S. host? The last time the Winter Games were in America was 2002 in Salt Lake City. This would require a sizable and expensive effort during what appears to be very challenging economic conditions when the national debt is already spiking.

Finally there is the fact that China, no matter what anyone thinks of its early effort involving the virus, is critical to the world coming out of it. Whether it is drugs that can treat the virus or a vaccine for immunity, due to the scale needed, they very well may have to be manufactured in Chinese plants. Few countries have such capability.

Trump could try to organize a multinational boycott of the Games, or even just unilaterally pull the U.S. athletes, but he would have to first win re-election in November. And, again, that would be a shot at the Chinese.

With every nation in the world as a potential customer for vaccines, do you want to anger the Chinese over anything, let alone what is essentially some ski races and hockey games?

“If we alienate the Chinese with our rhetoric, I think it will come back to bite us,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert from the University of Minnesota, told the New York Times when discussing U.S.-China relations in general. “... They have a choice about who they sell [vaccines] to. Are we top of the list? Why would we be?”

Foreign policy is complicated. Navigating the IOC is too, just with far, far lower stakes.

For some, it might feel good to lash out and have the government work to pull the Olympics out of Beijing. From the reality of how the IOC and the Games work, this isn’t a well-thought out response.

Let the Olympics be the Olympics.

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