In 1936, the world watched the first Hollywood-style Olympiad. The Nazi propaganda machine paraded the Third Reich on the world stage. In many ways, this was the first modern Olympics, with the first Olympic torch-lighting (and other firsts) widely broadcasted via radio and cleverly packaged on newsreels for cinema audiences everywhere. But to this day, the 1936 Olympics remain controversial. Are there things that we should learn from Germany’s 1936 Olympics when we think about the Beijing 2022 Olympics? How should democratic governments, as well as Christian citizens, respond to an Olympics held in an authoritarian regime that holds a million Muslim Uighurs in forced labor camps, represses Christians and other religious minorities, and has clamped down on the once-free inhabitants of Hong Kong?
Leading up to 1936, there were plenty of intellectuals and church leaders in the West who had been questioning the principles of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, particularly the “war guilt” clause and draconian German reparations. Add to that the long fraternal ties between Americans, Germans, and other Western Europeans as well as the sense that Germany had suffered a failing economy in the 1920s. So, it made sense that the Olympic Committee would give the gift of the Olympics to the struggling but democratic Weimar Republic. That fateful gift was given in 1931 before the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.
In early 1932, Adolf Hitler convincingly lost his bid for the German presidency, but later in the same year, the Nazi Party won 230 of 608 seats in the German parliament (Reichstag). It was a time of political turbulence and upheaval, capped by the Reichstag fire of February 1933. This provided the opportunity for Hitler’s ascension, and by late 1935 the Nazi reign of terror against Jews and other minorities accelerated with the passage of the notorious Nuremberg Laws.
Even though the unstable German republic was awarded the upcoming Olympic Games in 1931, by 1936 Hitler hijacked the Olympiad for Nazi propaganda. Many of the liberal elites who had called for a benevolent approach to Berlin, including religious figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr, were by 1936 loudly calling for a boycott of the games. But in the context of economic depression and Soviet Communism, there were some, such as American Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage, who said, “We can learn much from Germany. We, too, if we wish to preserve our institutions, must stamp out communism. We, too, must take steps to arrest the decline of patriotism.”
Notably, the 1936 Olympics were a triumph that defied the false reality of Nazi Aryanism, most notably as African-American Jesse Owens catapulted into history with four Olympic gold medals.
By comparison, how did Beijing come to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, particularly after they just hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics? Beijing is not even a winter sports venue! The answer is simple. It was barely a competition at all. Four European countries—Norway (Oslo), Sweden (Stockholm), Poland (Krakow), and Ukraine (Lviv)—withdrew during the bidding process, citing soaring costs and politicization. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach admitted that the Winter Olympics were a “tough sell” for financial and geographical reasons. St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany, were also in the running, but failed to pass a voter referendum for financial, cultural, and environmental reasons. This left Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, as the last two options for the official vote in 2015. Almaty arguably would have been a better choice; it is an established winter sports destination with natural snow and had the financial resources to fund the Olympics. However, the IOC believed China represented a tremendous opportunity for the winter sports market and saw China as a more reliable host. Bach himself stated that Beijing was a “safe choice” and that they could “deliver on their promises.” So, as established democracies and classic winter sports destinations backed out or were voted down, the IOC decided for China.
It is noteworthy how quiet the run-up to the 2022 Beijing Olympics has been when compared to 2008. China’s 2008 Olympic games were marred by a series of scandals and controversies. Those Olympics were on the cusp of the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. There were serious questions about forced or under-wage laborers feverishly working around the clock, not to mention safety concerns about hastily constructed stadiums. China’s nefarious support for dictatorial regimes, most notably the genocidal policies of Sudan’s Omar Bashir in Darfur, made many in Hollywood, among elites elsewhere, criticize the event as “the Genocide Olympics.” There was considerable talk about boycotting from across the aisle, including by both presidential candidates (Barack Obama and John McCain). Those concerned with human rights and religious freedom castigated Beijing’s treatment of Christians, Tibetans, and Falun Gong.
It seems as if the wider public beyond activists and China observers began the debate over boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics only at the last minute. Are there historical precedents for a boycott? It may be helpful to recognize at least three different types of boycotts that have happened in Olympic history. The first is when the International Olympic Committee bans a country for its egregious human rights violations. For instance, the IOC banned South Africa from the Olympics from 1964 until apartheid ended. One finds it hard to imagine the notoriously corrupt IOC doing such today, but a change in the IOC’s rules that goes into effect in 2024 should hold countries accountable for human rights violations in the future.
The second form of boycott is when countries boycott the Olympics because of the actions of a country that is going to participate in the Olympics. For instance, more than 20 African countries boycotted the 1976 Winter Olympics in Montreal, Canada, because New Zealand was going to participate. How had tiny New Zealand offended them? The offense occurred when New Zealand’s rugby team competed in South Africa, violating an international sports embargo for games to be held there. The very presence of Kiwis in Montreal was enough for a number of uncompetitive African countries to boycott Canada’s Olympics.
The third type of boycott is when countries boycott the host because of the host’s policies. Jimmy Carter led a complete boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Communist block returned the favor by boycotting the Los Angeles Summer Olympics. Photos from the Los Angeles Olympics show many a humorous placard held by Western fans, enjoying LA’s beautiful weather with statements such as, “From Russia with love, thank you, the US.” Fans realized that the lack of Soviet Communist athletes increased the medal count for the United States and other Western athletes!
You can see how the medal counts are skewed. In the 1976 Winter Olympics, when comparing the combined top five medal-winning countries, the Soviet bloc took 215 while the democratic West took 158. Four years later, when Carter barred US athletes from participating, the top five countries’ medal count was 377 Communist medals to just 15 democratic medals won by Italy.
Every once in a while, there’s an Olympiad where more than one of these types of boycotts confusingly mash up, as occurred in 1956. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon boycotted in protest of France, the UK, and Israel attempting to retake the Suez Canal after it was appropriated by Cairo. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted the 1956 Olympics because the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Spring. China refused to participate (and would not participate again until 1980) because Taiwan was (and continues to be) permitted to participate as a country.
In contrast to these national boycotts, the main form of boycotting this year is the “diplomatic boycott,” in which athletes compete but no official diplomats from the boycotting countries are present at the Games. Thus, no high-ranking US officials will journey to Beijing to cheer on US athletes this year, but our athletes will compete.
In some respects, allowing the athletes to compete worked in 1936, especially when Jesse Owens won four gold medals, showing that the Aryan national superiority espoused by Hitler and the Nazis was a total myth. However, in America there was little public debate about what America should do regarding the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics despite China’s violations of human rights with what amounts to genocidal practices relating to the Uighurs. Nor has there been much outcry against China’s ongoing repression of Christians and other religious groups as well as the harsh crackdowns on the once-free inhabitants of Hong Kong.
Most American religious leaders, denominations, and publications have had little to say about the Beijing Winter Olympics, at least until just recently.
Are there meaningful actions that can change the way future Olympic hosts are selected? Is there something that we can do now to aid China’s repressed minorities? As I have argued elsewhere, there are at least three areas of influence (governments, corporations, and citizen-consumers) that can be recommended:
- International influence: Governments need to encourage action by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to ban China from participating in the 2024 and future Olympics until genocidal actions against Uighurs are halted in the same way that the IOC banned South Africa from Olympic participation from 1964–88 until apartheid ended.
- Corporate sponsorship: The ties between a specific corporate sponsor of a national team and the work of slave labor in Xinjiang Province may be unclear or hard to determine. However, on the corporate front, companies can demand (a) that Western companies not pay sponsorships to fund the Chinese government at any level and (b) that the sources of products be from outside of China whenever possible, such as athletic wear and souvenirs.
- Citizen-consumers: Few of us would be able to influence Beijing, but we can have an effect by letting our elected officials know that fundamental human rights, including religious liberty, are deeply important to us and we are willing to pay a little more for products made elsewhere to guarantee they are not produced in forced labor camps of a Communist regime. Consumers can send a strong message to our retailers—from Coca-Cola to Walmart. It is tragic when we see the NBA and other organizations caving in to pressure from the Chinese government. Corporations should hear from us that China’s actions are not acceptable and cannot be tolerated or rewarded.
What about the athletes themselves? This is an opportunity for a personal decision on their part. My own preference is to see them compete and win, just as Jesse Owens did in 1936, rather than hand higher medal counts to China and Russia. Also, there are mature celebrity athletes and commentators at home who can act as influencers as well. Such athletes can stand against wearing clothing and gear manufactured by forced labor in China. On this point, it was disappointing to see Hollywood star Jackie Chan and retired basketball great Yao Ming as Olympic torchbearers. They are global influencers with authentic platforms for speaking out against Beijing’s human rights abuses.
As individuals, families, and as communities of faith, we can also take this opportunity for discussions about viewing the Olympics. One family I know has decided on a television boycott due to the IOC’s policy of allowing transgender male athletes to compete against biological females. This family refuses to watch such denials of the essence of God’s design of male and female. Some people will watch the Olympics and discuss the issues with their families so their teens fully understand what is going on in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. Christians can and should pray for the good of all Chinese and a change to the policies that are anti-faith and anti-Christ, whether in Xinjian Province or elsewhere. This is a moment to recognize that there is a spiritual dimension to global politics. Christians are called to pray against the game plan of the one who wants to “kill, steal, and destroy.” This Winter Olympics can help focus those prayers on the real needs of Chinese men, women, and children persecuted by their own totalitarian government.
This essay was improved by the work of Religious Freedom Institute interns Sage Yassa, Jackson Reinhardt, and Andrew Davenport.