China’s Olympic battle for legitimacy: The prehistory of the 2022 Beijing Games

Much has been made of the “diplomatic boycott” by the United States and its allies of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. But what much of the major Western media coverage misses is the historical and geopolitical significance of these games to China.

It is one of only three Asian host nations for the Olympics (along with Japan and South Korea), and the first global south country to host the Winter Games. The countries boycotting the 2022 Olympic Games, it seems, see this moment and the history that underpins it as threatening to their global hegemony in sport and geopolitics.

In 1949, the Communist Party of China prevailed over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) after 22 years of civil war, forcing the latter to flee to Taiwan. The founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) brought a definitive end to a “century of humiliation” inaugurated by the First Opium War, which had seen colonial powers reduce China to the “sick man of Asia”. This sickness had been a byword for the weakness, internal rupture, and forced narcotic dependency of the Chinese body politic — transposed inevitably onto the racialised Chinese body.

Overcoming these scars, in all their physical and psychological manifestations, was the guiding principle for sports policy in the PRC. Only through this lens can we understand why it fought in such an obstinate, pugnacious, and unabashedly political way for a place in the Olympic movement on its own sovereign terms. 

China turned the Olympics into a battleground in its contest for legitimacy with the KMT regime on Taiwan and its imperialist backers, elevating the dispute to “the main burden of Olympism”, in the words of Otto Mayer, chancellor of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1946 to 1964. And as with the parallel struggle for recognition by the United Nations, this one ended after three eventful decades in unqualified triumph. University of Hong Kong historian Xu Guoqi relates this saga in his 2008 book Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008.

The KMT-led Republic of China had sent a solitary athlete to the 1932 Los Angeles Games, followed by larger delegations in 1936 and 1948 — the latter, incredibly, as the KMT was losing the most decisive campaigns of the civil war to the communists. After the regime’s flight to Taiwan, its National Olympic Committee (NOC) gave the IOC pro forma notice that it had relocated to Taipei with no further explanation. 

Throughout this period, the Soviet Union had pointedly snubbed the “bourgeois” IOC in favour of organising its own proletarian Red Sport International, complete with “Spartakiad” games to rival the Olympics. But by the 1952 Helsinki Games, the Soviets were ready to join the existing Olympic movement in force (ultimately finishing a close second to the United States in the medal count) and duly urged the fledgling PRC to do so as well.

From its very first approach, the PRC insisted on what would become known as the one-China policy: that it was the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese nation including KMT-occupied Taiwan. The IOC ultimately fudged on the question and extended a last-minute invitation to Beijing and Taipei. Nonetheless, Mao Zedong, Liu Shaoqi and Zhou Enlai personally approved the decision to send a team, which arrived in Helsinki the day before the closing ceremony and could not take part in any competition. 

But merely being there was a boon to the PRC’s legitimacy, especially as the rival Taipei-based NOC had withdrawn in protest. Avery Brundage, the racist American who took over as IOC president that year, complained that “I did everything in my power to prevent them from taking part. Unfortunately, I had only one vote and because many others present did not feel the same way I was outvoted,” as vocal Olympic critic Jules Boykoff recounts in his 2016 book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.

This initial success for the PRC’s efforts to participate in the Olympic movement was not to be repeated. In 1956, it was the PRC’s turn to withdraw in protest as Taipei’s delegation insisted on competing in the Melbourne Summer Games under the name Republic of China. Two years later, Chinese IOC delegate Dong Shouyi entered into a bracing war of words with Brundage, calling him “a faithful menial of the US imperialists bent on serving their plot of creating ‘two Chinas’” in a resignation letter that concluded: “A man like you, who stains the Olympic spirit and violates the Olympic Charter, has no qualification whatsoever to be IOC president. … I feel pained that the IOC is today controlled by an imperialist like you and consequently the Olympic spirit has been grossly trampled upon. To uphold the Olympic spirit and tradition, I hereby declare that I will no longer cooperate with you or have any connection with the IOC while it is under your domination.”

Dong would not be the last Chinese representative to evoke an idealised “Olympic spirit” — in opposition to the Americans, who arguably embodied the real one in all its racist ugliness. He would, however, be the last one on the IOC until 1979.

Interestingly, this two-decade hiatus (which amounted to a 28-year absence from the Olympic Games, from 1952 to 1980) saw the two most severe diplomatic incidents surrounding the China question at the IOC. Both centred on the KMT regime’s untenable claim to represent the entire Chinese nation as the Republic of China, and both ended in bitter defeats for it, even as Beijing was de facto boycotting the entire Olympic movement. In effect, the PRC substituted state-to-state diplomacy — first with the Soviet bloc and then with Western powers after the Sino-Soviet split — for a formal presence within the institutions, closely mirroring its geopolitical strategy.

The first episode occurred in 1959, not long after Dong Shouyi’s acrimonious resignation, when Soviet delegates to the IOC insisted that Taipei’s NOC change its name on the self-evident grounds that it “[could not] possibly supervise sports in mainland China”. The IOC agreed, with even the arch-anticommunist Brundage reluctantly assenting. 

The US mainstream press exploded in outrage; absurdly, Brundage himself was deluged with hate mail alleging he had succumbed to “communist blackmail”. The US state department called the decision “a clear act of political discrimination” and even President Dwight D Eisenhower condemned it. The affair ended in another embarrassing fudge, with Taipei competing under the name “Taiwan” at Rome 1960 and quietly reverting to “Republic of China” thereafter.

The second, even more damaging incident took place in the lead-up to the 1976 Montreal Games. After establishing diplomatic relations in 1970, the PRC informed Canada in no uncertain terms that the Taipei NOC should not be allowed to compete as the Republic of China. After lobbying unsuccessfully for the IOC to recognise Beijing instead of Taipei, Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s government proposed that athletes from Taiwan compete under the neutral Olympic flag. The IOC agreed at the last minute, but not before debating whether to move the Games to the US or cancel them; the Taipei NOC ultimately withdrew.

Flag bearers Tingyu Gao and Dan Zhao of Team China carry their flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Beijing National Stadium on February 04, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Official reactions from Canada’s domineering southern neighbour were again apoplectic. US president Gerald Ford and the head of the US Olympic Committee discussed the possibility of boycotting or trying to take over the Games at the last minute. This did not come to pass, but Canada took a reputational hit in the US — a testament to China’s growing ability to exploit contradictions within the imperialist bloc. Canada’s independent China policy under Pierre Trudeau stood in stark contrast with that of his son Justin, who marched in shameful lockstep first with Trump’s judicial kidnapping of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, and now with Biden’s “diplomatic boycott” of Beijing 2022 over exaggerated allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Ironically, just a few years after savaging the Canadians, the US would follow in their footsteps by establishing diplomatic relations with the PRC and (formally) cutting ties with Taipei under the one-China policy. This paved the way for the IOC to resolve the two-China question later in 1979 in its own unique way: by readmitting Beijing and allowing athletes from Taiwan to compete under the name Chinese Taipei. Deng Xiaoping approved this compromise in an early foretaste of the future “one country, two systems” settlements that would return Hong Kong and Macao to Chinese sovereignty.

The PRC’s delayed return to the Olympic movement, contingent in many ways on bilateral ties with the US, contrasted sharply from its triumphant entry into the UN in 1971. On that occasion, an impressive coalition of African and other Third World countries — many fresh from their own national liberation struggles — had secured recognition for Beijing and expulsion of the KMT regime over the strident objections of the US and most of its allies. By 1979, the basis for unity within the socialist and nonaligned camps had so thoroughly collapsed that China and many other global south countries readily joined the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan.

Instead, mainland China made its long-delayed and triumphant return to Olympic competition at the 1984 Los Angeles Games — remembered locally as an orgy of Reaganite neoliberalism, American jingoism (amplified by the Soviet-led boycott), and militarised police terror that helped create the conditions for the 1992 Rodney King uprising. They nonetheless marked a high point in US-China relations, with PRC athletes being feted by the hosts. This goodwill was not dampened when the women’s volleyball team defeated the hosts to win gold.

There was ample reason to believe, even after the trauma of the 1989 Tiananmen incident and subsequent US sanctions, that enough of it remained to propel Beijing to victory in its first bid to host the Games. As it turned out, the US and its allies had no intention of ceding such recognition to a rising China without a fight.

Charles Xu is a member of the Qiao Collective and of the No Cold War collective.


This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute

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Charles Xu
Charles Xu is a member of the Qiao Collective and of the No Cold War collective.

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