Dec 7, 2021

Biden boycotts the Olympics.

Biden boycotts the Olympics.

It's a major snub. But what will it mean?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 11 minutes.

President Biden announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. Plus, a question about whether the U.S. is trending in the right direction or not.

The USA and China compete in Mens Basketball - Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Photo: Kris Krug / Flickr
The USA and China compete in Mens Basketball - Beijing 2008 Olympic Games. Photo: Kris Krug / Flickr

Podcast update.

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Quick hits.

  1. California Congressman Devin Nunes (R) is leaving Congress to become CEO of the new Trump media company. (The resignation)
  2. The Justice Department is suing Texas over its new redistricting plan, saying it discriminates against Latino and Black voters. (The lawsuit)
  3. Three more of the 17 American and Canadian missionaries abducted by a Haitian gang have been released. 12 are still being held. (The release)
  4. President Biden announced the United States Strategy on Countering Corruption, an effort to ramp up anti-corruption investigations and partner with anti-money laundering regimes in other countries. (The plan)
  5. President Biden will hold a call with Russia's President Vladimir Putin today, and plans to warn Putin about the potential repercussions of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. (The call)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Boycotting the Olympics. Yesterday, the Biden administration confirmed that it will not be sending the president or any other official U.S. government delegation to the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. The move is designed as a protest against China's ongoing human rights abuses, and is a notable snub given the Chinese government’s hopes to use the Olympics to enhance its public standing. But the boycott by officials will not affect the ability of any U.S. athletes to participate in the games.

In March, the U.S. declared China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide, and it has criticized the Chinese Communist Party for detaining pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. More recently, China has faced criticism for "disappearing" tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a former government official of sexual assault before falling out of public view (Shuai has appeared in two video conferences with the International Olympic Committee, giving assurances of her well-being, though that did little to comfort China's critics). Politicians on both sides of the aisle have called for the Biden administration to take a stand, though some — including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) — wanted him to go further and pull all U.S. athletes out of the games.

“U.S. diplomatic or official representation would treat these Games as business as usual in the face of [China’s] egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang, and we simply can’t do that,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “The athletes on Team USA have our full support... We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home.”

The federal government itself cannot make the decision to pull athletes from the games. That choice is left to the U.S. Olympic Committee. Boycotting is not unprecedented, either: In 1980, the U.S. Olympic Committee withdrew its athletes from the Summer Olympics in Moscow shortly after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

Zhao Lijian, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, expressed outrage at the move.

“U.S. politicians keep hyping a ‘diplomatic boycott’ without even being invited to the Games. This wishful thinking and pure grandstanding is aimed at political manipulation,” he said, according to The Washington Post. “It is a grave travesty of the spirit of the Olympic Charter, a blatant political provocation and a serious affront to the 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Below, we'll take a look at some perspectives about the decision. We are including opinions from the right and left, as well as opinions from a Uyghur Muslim advocate and a Chinese state news outlet.

What the right is saying.

  • The right has mostly argued that the diplomatic boycott does not go far enough.
  • It has also called out major corporations for sponsoring the games.
  • Many wish the athletes would take a stand against participating.

In The New York Post, Rich Lowry said it "should be a rule-of-thumb that the Olympics games shouldn’t be held in countries that operate concentration camps."

"If this strikes you as an unreasonable demand, you aren’t suited to serve on the International Olympic Committee. The IOC has doggedly defended Beijing as the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics even as the Chinese Communist Party pursues its campaign of unrelenting barbarity against the Uighurs," Lowry said. "The Biden administration just announced a so-called diplomatic boycott of the games, a gesture of disapproval that won’t dent the propaganda coup the IOC is handing the most dangerous regime in the world.

"The IOC is the World Health Organization of sports organizations. When China disappeared Peng Shuai, the female tennis star, for the offense of making an accusation of sexual assault against a former high government official, the IOC happily assisted in the regime’s crisis PR, lest the shocking incident derail the games," Lowry added. "China has the great good fortune to deal with international organizations — except the Women’s Tennis Association, which is suspending tournaments in China — that lack all self-respect. The IOC is following in the well-trod footsteps of corporations, financiers and sports leagues that start out wanting to do business with China and end up complicit in the regime’s crimes by staying silent or explaining them away."

In The National Review, Jimmy Quinn said the boycott highlights a "corporate capitulation" to China.

There’s ample reason to question whether the Biden administration has gone far enough to push back against what’s sure to be a Chinese Communist Party propaganda event and to ensure that U.S. athletes and journalists are not subjected to Beijing’s hostage-diplomacy tactics. This is a debate that’ll play out for the next three months, but what’s most immediately obvious is where this leaves corporate sponsors of the 2022 games.

Intel, Visa, Airbnb, Coca-Cola, P&G, and others are bankrolling an event that party officials are using to bolster their international legitimacy and deflect from the ongoing mass atrocities they’re perpetrating in China. Now, these Beijing 2022 sponsors are also sponsoring an event that’s being boycotted by the U.S. government over “the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” as White House press secretary Jen Psaki put it earlier today... The executives atop these companies are going out of their way to deflect criticism of the party’s atrocities, whether they do so explicitly or not. They’re sticking with the games, even though the U.S. government is staying home.

What the left is saying.

  • Most are satisfied with the diplomatic boycott, though some have called for an athlete boycott, too.
  • Many on the left believe Biden is sending the right message.
  • While they support Biden's move, they also want to continue to pressure China on human rights.

In USA Today, Nancy Armour said it was the right move.

"Finally, somebody has the guts to stand up to China and its propaganda fest," Armour wrote. “By announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics on Monday, the United States is casting an inescapable shadow over what President Xi Jinping planned as a celebration of China’s wealth, power and status as a global heavyweight. No matter how spectacular the opening ceremony is, how flawlessly the Games are staged or how many medals the host country wins, there will be a, 'Yes, but …' attached to everything. The U.S. repudiation of China’s long litany of human rights abuses will remain front and center for the duration of the Games, and there’s not a damn thing Xi, Beijing organizers or even the International Olympic Committee can do about it."

"With the IOC a willing accomplice to China’s many misdeeds, some have called for an athlete boycott. But that isn’t the answer," Armour added. "Athletes have spent most of their lives training for an Olympics and, for many, they will only get one shot. It is not fair to expect them to speak out, or stay home, when people in actual positions of power display no such moral courage."

However, some on the left want to see an athlete boycott. In the Boston Globe, Brian Alexander wrote the case for one.

"On Feb. 4, China, the International Olympic Committee, and NBC will open the Winter Olympics while trying to pretend China is not operating concentration camps that imprison members of the Uighur ethnic minority, subjecting some to forced sterilization; has not wrecked civil liberties in Hong Kong; and has not silenced one of its own star athletes, tennis player Peng Shuai, after she accused a top Chinese government official of sexual assault," he wrote. "China, the IOC, and NBC will do all this pretending for you, Olympians. Not for your benefit, mind you, but because they need you. They need you to show up.

"NBCUniversal paid $7.5 billion to the IOC for the rights to broadcast the Olympics from 2022 through 2032," Alexander added. "The network has reportedly sold out the ad space, and IOC 'partners' like Coca-Cola, Toyota, Visa, Bridgestone, and Procter & Gamble want your gauzy stories to sell their products. China, of course, wants a huge public relations boost. But none of this can happen without you. You are the meat in the grinder of a giant entertainment-industrial complex. Without you, there wouldn’t be much of a US TV audience to justify all that money. So if you were to begin feeling a little uncomfortable skiing, skating, or curling on the backs of innocent people imprisoned for the crime of being who they are and you decided not to go, you could force the IOC to stop abetting the trampling of human rights."

From China.

China Daily, the English newspaper owned by the Publicity Department of the Chinese government, called the boycott "politically driven."

"Washington's latest attempt to politicize the forthcoming global sports event runs counter to the Olympic spirit that intends to unite rather than divide," the state-owned paper said. "This blatant political provocation will also risk damaging Sino-US relations, one of the world's most important bilateral relationships that stands at a crucial crossroads. Given that no US officials had been invited to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics, the so-called diplomatic boycott is no more than a self-invented and politically convenient excuse for Washington. Such a move, based on lies and political hostility, will not stand in the way of the Olympic Games but only be remembered as a move by some politicians who put their self-interests before the pursuit of peace and unity of humanity."

In June, Rayhan Asat, an advocate for Uyghurs in China, said to move the games or stage a diplomatic boycott.

"I cheered China on from Wuhan in 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics," Asat wrote. "Thirteen years later, I’m advocating for the 2022 Winter Olympics to be relocated from Beijing, and for a diplomatic boycott if that option fails. My position shifted drastically because China, a country I hoped would move in a more democratic direction, instead has reached new levels of cruelty... My worst fears were realized in the spring of 2016 when my brother, a prominent tech entrepreneur, disappeared after returning from a U.S. State Department exchange program. In January 2019, he was transferred from a concentration camp to the Aksu prison camp.

"The International Olympic Committee postponed last year’s Summer Olympics because of Covid," Asat wrote. “Why can’t it delay or move next year’s games instead of holding them in a country that is locking up millions of people in camps where torture, forced sterilization, rape and starvation are the norm?"

My take.

In an ideal world, the Olympics would have been moved from Beijing months or years ago. Unfortunately, we don't live in that world, so we're left with two options: one half-measure and one choice that would do just as much harm to U.S. athletes as it would to the Chinese government.

In March, I interviewed Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch about what was happening in China and why an Olympic boycott was necessary. In August, I wrote about the cold reality of what China was doing to the Uyghurs. The Chinese propaganda machine can frame Biden's diplomatic boycott as politically divisive and against the spirit of the games as much as they want, but what's actually divisive is imprisoning, torturing and sterilizing Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. That horrific campaign is the work of President Xi, something recent leaks have only confirmed. I'm not sure how much more survivor testimony or photographic evidence we need to see to accept the accuracy of reporting on what is happening.

Without the IOC's support — and with little recourse once corporate sponsors refused to pull out — Biden was truly playing a bad hand. And he played it perfectly fine. A diplomatic boycott brings attention to the issue, creates headlines about what is happening, and ensures U.S. officials won't be seen hobnobbing with a government that is doing what Xi's government is doing.

As for the athletes, I'm sympathetic to their position. The athlete in me, of course, wants to believe the best course of action would be to show up and whoop some ass. But it's unavoidable that any athletes who go there will be leveraged as actors in the concocted play of the CCP's making. Ultimately, the athletes should be able to choose on their own, and while I'd respect the chutzpah to stay home, I won't blame anyone for refusing to give up a lifelong dream. Especially when the real power centers behind the Games had every opportunity to do something over the last couple of years — but chose not to.

Today's topic.

Q: What are your thoughts on whether America is headed on the right track vs. wrong track in the next few decades? I was in a debate with a friend around whether or not we are in yet another "best of times, worst of times" moment, or whether some of the macro / long-term trends are really pointing towards a unique moment in time for a darkening future for America (e.g., loneliness, eroding trust in institutions, opioid epidemic, political politicization).

— Anonymous, Los Angeles, California

Tangle: I'm an optimist. I think it's nearly impossible to say broadly whether America is on the right or wrong track, but I do think there's cause for hope. Mostly, because of where we were before the pandemic — an event that has had catastrophic impacts not just on the U.S. but basically every country on earth.

Before coronavirus, I think it was pretty safe to say we were trending in the right direction. Compared to 20 years ago, Americans were in many ways better off economically. Even compared to the first decade of the 21st century, poverty was falling, fewer people were homeless, child mortality rates declined, personal income was up, cancer death rates were falling, violent crime was falling, and youth illiteracy was falling. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions were down, the criminal justice system was becoming more just, and in 2020 — however you want to frame it — more people were participating in the political process than we've had in decades, which to me was a good thing.

Much of this progress has been upended, reversed, or slowed because of the pandemic. I think it'll take another decade before it’s clear whether we can rebound from that, but I also think the pandemic could result in more power for the working class, more autonomy for all workers, and a long-term migration of wealth and jobs from the inner-cities back to suburbia, smaller towns, and rural areas, which I think would be a net positive. Again, though, we'll see.

Obviously, none of this serves to downplay the major threats. Polarization, censoriousness, and the degradation of Congress continue on a daily basis. Our freedom scores are falling, and wealth inequality is getting worse. A majority of Republicans still don't accept the results of the 2020 election, while Americans are increasingly disillusioned with the institutions we rely on for societal order. Many on the left and right are pining for class warfare while social media echo chambers are radicalizing our most influential pundits and politicians. All of it, truly, concerns me.

But I still think there's plenty to be hopeful about, especially if more people can get involved (and get rational) in our politics. However you cut it, the next few years will be critical to shaping the arc of the country.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

"Democrats are tired of waiting for Joe Manchin." That's the lede from a new story in Politico about the murmurs in Congress, where Democrats may put their $1.7 trillion social spending and climate bill to a vote — whether Manchin is openly supporting it or not. Increasingly, Senate Democrats want to put the bill to a vote, forcing centrist Democrats like Sen. Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) into taking a tough vote either with or against the party. If the feeling gains momentum, it could mean one of the most sweeping bills in U.S. history will go up for a vote before the holiday break — potentially reshaping education, climate change efforts and the social safety net. Politico has the story.


  • $34.7 billion. The amount of revenue Toyota, an Olympic sponsor, received from China in 2020.
  • $3.3 billion. The amount of revenue Coca-Cola, an Olympic sponsor, received from China in 2020.
  • $34 million. The amount of revenue Airbnb, an Olympic sponsor, received from China in 2020.
  • 49%. The percentage of Americans who said China's human rights violations should prevent it from hosting the Olympics, according to an August poll.
  • 14%. The percentage of Americans who said China's human rights violations should not prevent it from hosting the Olympics, according to an August poll.
  • 33%. The percentage who said they didn't know.

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Have a nice day.

It's never too late to learn. What else can be said about Kuttiyamma, a 104-year-old woman who just learned to read and write. Kuttiyamma lives in the southern Indian state of Kerala and is known for being incredibly active at her age, but she said she had always wanted to tackle one other goal: becoming literate. After watching her great-grandchildren learn to read and write, she was inspired, and hired a volunteer teacher to tutor her day and night. And recently, she scored 89 out of 100 on a literacy exam to test her ability. The Good News Hub has the story.

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