The US recently confirmed that it would not send any official or diplomatic representatives to the Winter Olympic Games and Paralympics in February 2022 due to China’s alleged “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” Make no mistake—this tough language does not imply a total boycott of the Games—US athletes are not banned from competing for Olympic medals in China, and American fans will have a chance to cheer their compatriots on offline, provided that these fans manage to get to Beijing amid existing strict COVID-19 restrictions. The US decision is mostly symbolic: The Biden administration, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki stated, “will not be contributing to the fanfare of the Games.”
Thinking about this US decision I am compelled to recollect the Winter Games of 2014 held in the city of Sochi along Russia’s Black Sea coast. One should note that the Games happened to be one of President Vladimir Putin’s most cherished personal initiatives. The Russian leader had spent a lot of his time and energy monitoring progress at numerous development sites, visiting future Olympic facilities, guiding construction teams, reviewing budgets, and observing expenditures. He looked forward to presenting the results of his efforts to the international community. When the work was finally completed, he invited many foreign leaders to come to Sochi and to share with him his hard-earned jamboree.
Unfortunately, almost all heads of Western states found “compelling” reasons not to include a trip to Sochi into their travel plans. Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, Francois Holland and David Cameron—all of them turned down Vladimir Putin’s invitation. This was not a formal diplomatic boycott: Some of the no-shows referred to their busy schedules. However, many observers noted that the rain check reasons picked by Western leaders reflected dissatisfaction of the latter with how Russia’s authorities approached the issue of sexual minorities’ rights.
Moreover, on the eve of the event in Sochi, Western media presented a rather gloomy picture of how Russia had prepared for the 2014 Games reporting many alleged cases of corruption, misappropriation of funds, construction delays, and environmental damage caused by the construction. In sum, the outstretched hand of Vladimir Putin hung empty in the air. The Russian leader should have been strongly disappointed at and angry with his Western partners. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Turkish leader Recep Erdogan, and many other non-Western heads of state were happy to join Putin for the sporting event in Sochi.
This unfortunate incident would probably not be worth mention if it were not for one remarkable coincidence. The 2014 Games coincided with the climax of mutiny and violence in Ukraine. When hockey players were scoring pucks in the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, protesters were burning car tires at the Independence Square in Kyiv. The situation in Ukraine was getting more and more dangerous with each passing day.
I often wonder whether the Ukrainian crisis could have taken a different direction should all Western leaders have had a chance to discuss its unraveling situation with President Putin in an informal way somewhere in a VIP lounge at the Olympic Village in Sochi. Probably, in the friendly and relaxed atmosphere of the grand sport festival, they could had come to a common position that would have prevented further unrest, more bloodshed, and a future protracted fundamental conflict between Moscow and the West. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed forever.
Now, let me get back to the Western diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. Just imagine for a second that there is another major international crisis during the Games—for instance, in the Taiwan Straits. Wouldn’t it be great for President Xi, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, and other big shots in global politics to discuss the crisis in the casual environment of the Winter Olympics? I am almost sure that this environment would be ideal for reaching an acceptable compromise and for avoiding the worst-case outcomes of the crisis. Even without a crisis, a meeting of P5 leaders on the margins of the 2022 Games would be an extremely rare opportunity to compare notes on the situation in the world and to agree on steps promoting global stability and economic recovery. It seems that this opportunity has already been missed as the one missed eight years ago.
History tells us that when tension between states grows, the states need more, not less diplomatic interaction. Not sending officials to the Olympic Games in Beijing, Western leaders demonstrated a spectacular lack of vision and a deficit of common sense—and neither for the first nor for the last time in modern history. The sad fact is that the mistakes and fumbles of state leaders often impose a heavy toll on societies and nations that these leaders are supposed to serve and protect.
From our partner RIAC