There was already hand-wringing aplenty over the summer but this time around the stakes seem even higher. Much of the Beijing Winter Olympics will share the same concerns that plagued the Tokyo games: COVID-19 transmission rates, the mental health of isolated athletes and the potential yawning emptiness of partially-filled stadiums.

But add to that the shadow of China’s recent cyber-attack sprees, the Hong Kong crackdown, the satellite images of Xinjiang concentration camps, and we have what could be shaping up to be one of the most fraught sporting events since 1980.

The tensions with China are neither new nor surprising. Over the past decades the country has grown into the shoes of a global superpower and acquired a record of stifling governance in the process. Come Friday, fireworks will light up the very same city that authorized the systematic sterilization of Uyghur Muslims and silenced its own health authorities in a botched cover-up attempt that cost hundreds of lives. The sheer severity of all the trampled human rights and flouted freedoms have reached the point where watching the games will likely require a medal-worthy feat of mental compartmentalization.

To be clear, this article won’t argue for boycotting or shutting off our TVs. Our refusal to watch the games will do little to reverse NBC’s $7.75 billion broadcasting deal or send any meaningful political statement. Relocation is ineffective and, by now, unproductive. And it’s unclear how effective Capitol Hill’s diplomatic boycott will actually be in a country that sports one of the most well-oiled propaganda and censorship machines. In the coming weeks, China will continue to bolster its self-image as an international power imperiled by an increasingly hostile world. The sponsorships will roll in, as expected. The COVID-19 case count will trend upwards. This close to the start of the games, there’s not much we can do.

We can — and we should, however — use this as a chance to rethink the Olympics altogether. The failure to discipline China over its chronic human rights abuses and its decision to continue the games all in the midst of the pandemic is probably more than an unfortunate coincidence of politics and hard-pressed pockets. It’s part of a growing list of indictments against the IOC and its many failings. Twenty-one years ago when the IOC approved Beijing’s 2008 bid, most entertained hopes that the international exposure might help liberalize China, thaw the ice, maybe even turn the page to friendlier relations.

It has not. Like 1980, when Moscow didn’t withdraw from Afghanistan until another eight years later; like 1936, when an emboldened Hitler pressed on with his plans. The two weeks of cosmopolitan harmony promised by the games is a far cry from any true form of global diplomacy.

Neither has the IOC shown that it particularly cares about the athletes who partake in its games or even the cities that host them. Just ask anyone who’s seen the images of Rio’s swimming pools or the millions who are forcibly evicted for the construction of these doomed monuments. Not since Barcelona have the games yielded any substantial boosts in economic development, which means local residents will shoulder much of the games’ finances only to face dismal returns and sporting venues derelict beyond recognition.

The organization that pledges itself to “political neutrality” and the “autonomy of sport” was never perfect to begin with, but it definitely won’t live up to its mission statement when it’s perennially mired in scandals and needlessly opaque. Not with Rule 50, which ended Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ careers in 1986 and still lingers over the podium today. Not with all its billion-dollar revenues, tolerance of hard regimes and tepid response to Russia’s doping episodes. It becomes increasingly difficult to see the Olympics as anything other than what they are: a two-week fest of fireworks and TV advertisements designed only with profits and sponsorships in mind.

Sports shouldn’t be politicized. There’s a special joy in witnessing Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel glide their way to gold. And I want to see Nathan Chen pirouetting across the ice, Allyson Felix with her arms outstretched as she cements her place in history. I want to have seen old records broken and new frontiers reached, history made. But in a world that has so commercialized the event, we’re struggling to salvage the heroics of human spirit and body from the muddy backdrop of politics against which they take place. Our athletes and communities deserve better than an outdated, outmoded institution long overdue for change. It’s time to search for more climate-friendly, equitable alternatives and maybe blow out the torches once and for all.

Hanwen Zhang is a sophomore at Benjamin Franklin College.  Contact him at