BEHIND THE SCENES: Combining pressures from politics and sports on Beijing 2022 opens up unexplored prospects

In just a matter of days, two very different institutions, but both led by U.S. progressives - the White House and the WTA - stepped forward.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 19, 2021. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

No one will be able to accuse Joe Biden’s administration of lack of clarity: “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” are its arguments for deciding on the “diplomatic boycott” against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, which open in less than two months.

The unusual harshness of Jen Psaki, White House spokeswoman, confirms that sport serves the Biden administration to make its position on the Beijing regime understood by all.

Because the boycott was a fact, it was evident since Biden himself admitted that he was analyzing it and since the White House tenant and Chinese President Xi Jinping avoided talking about it during their recent three-and-a-half-hour meeting.

There was nothing to talk about, the decision had already been made.

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2021.  REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden speaks virtually with Chinese leader Xi Jinping from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 15, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo/File Photo

That’s what the WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, understood - or knew, actually - when last week it announced something unthinkable a short time ago: its severing of relations with China, the withdrawal of all its tournaments in a country that has provided it with a very significant portion of its budget in the last decade. 

The strange situation of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai was the catalyst for the WTA to take the bold step. And she was by no means oblivious to the White House’s decision.

“From day one ... an instigator of change”. That’s how WTA CEO and Chairman Steve Simon describes himself. A 66-year-old Californian, he also spoke with unusual clarity in the rationale for his decision.

“None of this is acceptable nor can it become acceptable. If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep allegations of sexual assault under the rug, then the basis on which the WTA was founded - equality for women - would suffer an immense setback. I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.

“Unless China takes the steps we have asked for, we cannot put our players and staff at risk by holding events in China. China’s leaders have left the WTA with no choice. I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”

FILE PHOTO: Tennis - WTA Tour Finals - Panamerican Tennis Center, Guadalajara, Mexico - November 15, 2021 Chief Executive WTA tour Steve Simon before the match. Picture taken November 15, 2021 REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: Tennis - WTA Tour Finals - Panamerican Tennis Center, Guadalajara, Mexico - November 15, 2021 Chief Executive WTA tour Steve Simon before the match. Picture taken November 15, 2021 REUTERS/Henry Romero/File Photo

Hardly anyone dared to speak to Beijing that way as China grew and gained power at an accelerated pace. Today, with China competing head to head with the United States, many understand that it is time to put limits on the giant.

In just a matter of days, two very different institutions, but both led by U.S. progressives - the White House and the WTA - stepped forward.

Days ago, Wimbledon, a true institution of British sport, joined in: “The WTA continues to demonstrate strong leadership in pursuit of its mission to represent and protect the rights of its players”.

A foretaste, in a way, of what will happen with the governments of London, Canberra and Ottawa, which were waiting for Washington to announce the decision.

From now on, there will be a trickle of “diplomatic boycotts”, which, unlike those of a few decades ago, punish the host, but not the athlete.

And the punishment of China, although some might not think so, is strong. For countries with a long history and power like China or Russia, the fact that other powers despise their Games is an affront. They do care.

Fourteen years after Beijing 2008, Games in which the opening ceremony was almost a message of “we are the most powerful country in the world, start to understand it once and for all”, the world of politics begins to use sport to put limits on Beijing.

It serves Biden well, because the move is important in the face of an important sector of his voters, but it also draws the attention of more than a few Donald Trump supporters, annoyed by the flood of cheap goods from China.

And to the WTA, too. It loses money today, but the bet is a long-term, decades-long gamble. A deeply American organization, progressive and emblem of feminism since the ‘70s, it could not afford to ignore an accusation of “sexual assault” against one of its players. Billie Jean King would not have forgiven it.

What the WTA loses today it gains in image. And that gain in image pays dividends in the U.S. and European markets, where its sponsors also come from. The WTA will have to forget about the Chinese, yes, but staying halfway would condemn it to a bigger problem in the future.

By choosing to slam the door on China, it gets something that the ATP, its counterpart on the men’s circuit, may no longer be able to aspire to.

This story, of course, will continue.

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