How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
More than 180 human rights groups, politicians, and lawyers have called on the United States and its allies to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. They insist that China’s brutal treatment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and its heavy-handed repression of ethnic Uyghurs should disqualify it from hosting an event of such global stature.
Critics of the proposed boycott argue that withdrawing from a sports competition will do little to alter Chinese behavior. And that is largely true: a boycott of the Olympic Games would probably not force the Chinese Communist Party to radically change course. But Olympic boycotts are still potent weapons that strike at the vanities of authoritarian countries, which is why they have been a recurring feature of the modern running of the Games. The United States and the Soviet Union both refused to participate in various Olympics during the Cold War. And calls for boycotts also arose around the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Unlike many democracies, China, Russia, and other authoritarian states care a lot about the Olympics, investing heavily in both hosting the Games and topping their medal counts. They see the Games as a way to pursue great-power rivalry by other means. Those arguing for a boycott understand just how much the Olympics matter to the soft-power ambitions of China and other authoritarian powers and how much Beijing wants its moment in the limelight.
Over a century ago, the American economist Thorsten Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the way fin-de-siècle plutocrats flaunted their wealth to gain social standing. “It is not sufficient merely to possess wealth or power,” Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class. “The wealth or power must be put in evidence, for esteem is awarded only on evidence.” What was true then for the nouveau riche is true now for authoritarian countries: hosting and succeeding in the Olympic Games are textbook acts of conspicuous consumption.
The Olympics are tailor-made for winning status on the international stage, and they are inherently conspicuous. Every two years, either the summer or the winter iteration of the Olympics takes center stage and commands global attention. Hosting a well-executed Games can showcase a country’s growth and achievement, providing evidence of economic development and institutional competence. Governments are therefore willing to spend seemingly irrational sums in pursuit of the status won through staging the Olympic Games. Sochi 2014 reportedly cost $50 billion, superseding the Beijing 2008 Games as the most expensive Olympics in history.
The prestige of hosting the Olympics also comes with the pressure of performing on the field. China and Russia still see the Games much as the old Soviet Union did, as an extension of geopolitical competition; success in the sporting arena offers a broader kind of vindication. To be sure, democracies have won more medals than authoritarian regimes in the history of the Olympics, and the United States has overall won more than twice as many medals as Russia and four times as many as China. But accounting for the fact that democratic countries tend to be wealthier than authoritarian ones, as we do in our research, most types of authoritarian regimes are significantly more likely to win Olympic medals.
Authoritarian states punch above their weight for a simple reason: they try harder. They make the search for Olympic success into a kind of industrial policy. The exact extent of China’s investment in its Olympic athletes is not known. Russia reportedly spent at least $25 million to support its Olympic athletes ahead of the 2018 Winter Games, a sum devoted to maintain elite training facilities, pay stipends for coaches, physicians, and elite athletes, and finance athletes’ travel and training abroad. Chinese and Russian investments in winning are not just financial. China mimics the old Soviet model with its state-run system, which removes children from their homes and places them in schools that subject them to intense training and pressure to excel from a young age. The state directs children into sports in which China is deficient or in which it already boasts a competitive edge.
These countries’ intense drive to win has at times pushed them over the edge. Both China and Russia have faced credible charges of cheating. China has been accused of engaging in state-sponsored doping in the 1980s and 1990s and, more recently, of lying about its athletes’ ages. Russia’s antidoping agency has been accused for decades of selling banned substances to athletes, of using tip-offs, false names, and false urine samples to help athletes avoid getting caught for doping, and of covering up positive drug tests. The sheer scale and pervasiveness of doping in the Russian athletic system forced the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from competing in the Tokyo Summer Olympics this year.
Unlike many democracies, authoritarian states care a lot about the Olympics.
The U.S. approach to athletic competition strikes a profound contrast to the top-down determination of its authoritarian counterparts. The United States has not invested in Olympic success and international sports to nearly the same degree as have China and Russia. It does not provide public funding for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, leaving much of the financing of its athletes to the private sector. The most significant way that it contributes to the success of its elite athletes is through the federal funding of universities, which have trained more than a thousand U.S. Olympians since the beginning of the Games. The United States may have been more driven to win during the Cold War period, when it poured money into its universities in order to compete with the Soviet Union. But that funding has shrunk. Today, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee offers fairly modest prizes to athletes who win medals: for gold at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, U.S. athletes will receive $37,500, a figure that is as little as a third of what the Russian government has paid its athletes in recent Olympics and a drop in the bucket compared with the $1 million Singapore offered its athletes at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. The cash prizes that China typically awards its athletes are not all that different from those doled out in the United States. But in China, Russia, and other authoritarian states, successful athletes often receive jobs, apartments, and luxury cars from their governments on top of cash prizes.
Just as it does not do much to directly support its Olympians, the U.S. federal government does not offer much financial support to U.S. cities that seek to host the Olympics. For the last Olympic Games held in the United States, in Salt Lake City in 2002, the federal government contributed $1.5 billion—less than half the $3.9 billion budget for the 2022 Winter Olympics and much less than the $23.4 billion Russia lavished on infrastructure and facilities for the Sochi Games. In 2000, the late Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, still called the amount the United States planned to spend on the Salt Lake City Games “a disgrace,” attributing it to “a logical extension of what you get when you start pork-barrel spending.” Many local politicians in New York City were wary of the city’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics and were pleased when the bid failed. More recently, the Trump administration even attempted to cut public spending on the Special Olympics.
Seeking status is as much a driver of human behavior as is seeking wealth or security. And what is true for individuals applies also to the groups with which they identify, notably their countries. Leaders of all kinds of states crave status, but they seek it in different ways. With their comparative advantage in Olympic competition, it makes sense for authoritarian states to invest heavily in the Games. Especially for China—a budding superpower—the Olympic Games offer the prospect of directing global attention to the country’s newfound accomplishments, affording it the recognition that Chinese leaders think they deserve.
The quest for international status via Olympic glory also feeds into the less lofty motivations of domestic politics in authoritarian regimes. Leaders of these regimes often rely on a relatively narrow circle of key supporters compared with democratic governments, and they need to pay them off even as they provide fewer material rewards to the larger population. The Olympics offer material payoffs to these regime insiders, while gifting the intangible reward of national glory and pride to the wider population.
China has already boasted that a boycott is “doomed to failure.”
The immediate benefits of investments in elite sports accrue to few people and don’t trickle down to the general population. Instead, the public gains a sense of national esteem that comes when a country wins on the world stage. Authoritarian regimes manage how their populations understand the significance of the Olympics, given their control over the media. Russia’s Sochi Winter Games in 2014 illustrate this perfectly: President Vladimir Putin’s cronies in the business world raked in billions in no-bid contracts, while Russians saw a spectacular show that appeared to buttress their country’s global standing.
The United States and other democratic countries have a very different relationship with the Olympics. Independent media intensely scrutinize any bid to host the Games. Americans care about how the United States is perceived on the world stage, but achieving greater international status does not rank as a high priority for voters after their country has been a dominant world power for nearly a century. Moreover, the U.S. public is uncomfortable with the level of government spending on Olympic facilities and sports stadiums more generally. As a result, the United States and other Western democracies have little interest in matching their authoritarian adversaries in the Olympics’ wider competition for status.
Should Western democracies decide to withdraw from the 2022 Olympics, that decision itself would set the stage for a competition for status, one that China would strive to win by minimizing the impact of any boycott. China has already boasted that a boycott is “doomed to failure” and has promised to levy sanctions against any state that threatens to boycott the Games. It can deploy its extensive resources to punish offending countries. The parsimonious publics of the United States and other democracies, on the other hand, would prevent their governments from expending the necessary resources to resist Beijing’s efforts to undermine a boycott. The United States and its allies may invoke human rights and other high-minded ideals in choosing to stay away from the Olympics, but China’s material power is likely to come out on top.