Romney’s Folly: The American Olympic Boycott Disaster

In March this year, United States senator and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney published an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for a particular boycott of Beijing’s upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, proposing a specific economic and diplomatic boycott instead of an outright one. Romney rightly sees the Olympics as an important platform for American athletes to showcase their hard-earned skills and expertise, and he argues strongly against having American athletes boycott the Olympics. Instead, he believes that Americans who travel to Beijing should buy only American products, stay at American businesses, and promote America while stonewalling anything Chinese. Regrettably, keeping American athletes in the games is the only good point Romney has throughout his piece. The piece struck a tone with readers and has since caused a flurry of confusion, with U.S. State Department officials both confirming and then denying the existence of an American-led international boycott. Regardless, Romney’s boycott is not a good idea. If acted upon, it would accelerate the deterioration of the US-China relationship and damage the Olympics going forward.

Romney served as president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games of 2002, but why does he suddenly and so sharply care about Beijing’s upcoming Olympic Games? What compels him to take time out of his schedule to comment on an issue so far removed from his daily activities? We will never know for sure, but it’s clear that Romney’s piece is not a bipartisan article sprung from a sense of moral goodwill or civic duty. Readers should remember that Romney remains a Republican, a full-time politician, and has run for president before. Polls show that Romney is a likely future candidate for any Republican primary and that he’s consolidating his position to run as a Republican candidate for the White House in 2024. With this in mind, it is likely that Romney’s boycott was written to pander to Republican voters and to signal that Romney will continue tough-on-China policies, regardless of how counterproductive.

In 2006, Romney attended a reception ceremony on the ninth deck of a 2,700-passenger luxury liner, the Queen Mary 2, where he became the inaugural recipient of a “Truce Ideal Award”, granted to him by an unclear entity for promoting the Olympic Truce. An Olympic tradition that dates back to Ancient Greece, in antiquity, the Olympic truce was announced before the Olympic games to ensure that whichever city-state hosted the games would not be attacked by other rival city-states. The award appears to have been named after Romney since he accepted it, but there is no information on it being awarded to anyone after Romney. Regardless of where this award came from, it’s particularly ironic that Romney — a supposed model for the Olympic Spirit — talks about sportsmanship but drags the Olympic games through the mud as a political tool. His proposed boycott is both unrealistic and politicizes sports for personal gain. Leaders in all countries — but America especially given its consideration of a boycott — should remember that the Olympic Games are a collaborative platform for all people to bypass barriers. As enshrined in the Olympic motto itselfthe Olympics’ goal is to “gofaster, higher, and stronger”. The Olympics are not here to enable America to play the Spar Spangled Banner on other countries territories. They are not here for America to “demonstrate repudiation” of so-called Chinese abuses, and they are not here to “punish” the Chinese Communist Party or any political party. The International Olympic Committee also does not exist to serve as a political tool that America and its allies can use to attack what they deem repressive regimes. If anything should be boycotted, it is Romney and the State Department’s poor attempt at blending the Olympics with America’s currently disastrous foreign policy. Despite this fiasco, the United States should, like any other nation, be continuously welcomed with open arms to the Olympic games.

Romney’s piece and the confusion caused by floating such a ridiculous idea is regrettably not surprising in America’s current political climate. It should not be pursued by any serious policymakers if America’s end goal is international cooperation, an improvement in US-China relations, and the promotion of good sportsmanship. Romney would be better off spending his time and energy commenting on areas of his expertise, which include religion, leading private companies, and private equity, leaving China to experts who are familiar with the issue. The State Department should also stick to reorganizing itself and not branch into sports. Although this is not the first time the Olympics have been used as a political tool, this debacle will hopefully be the last.

S.W. Smith
S.W. Smith
Symington W. Smith is a life fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, and a Board Member and Political Advisor at Eastern Commerce Group. He is a recipient of Tatler Asia's Leader of Tomorrow Award and is ranked as a key leader shaping the future of Asia.