The diplomatic Olympic boycott
Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Canada have joined the United States (US) in a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, to begin in February, over the country’s poor human rights record. A diplomatic boycott is not the same as a boycott of the Games — the countries will participate in the competition, but they will not send any government officials to the event. For example, US president George W Bush attended the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, despite his government’s opposition to China’s actions in Tibet, but Joe Biden will not be in Beijing in 2022.
It’s a strong statement to make — many countries have spoken out against China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighur minority describing it as “genocide”, or the crackdowns against protests in Hongkong, and in the last few weeks, there has been growing concern for Chinese tennis player, Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view after making sexual assault allegations against a top government official and reappeared to post scripted videos after governments and sporting bodies raised a hue and cry. Yet, it’s not nearly enough. China can brush off the diplomatic boycott as inconsequential. As long as the athletes come and the Games go ahead, there is little to lose for China. It is unlikely to have an influence on, say, the millions of dollars in sponsorships that the Games attract. None of the over 20 major sponsors — including US corporations such as Visa, Coca Cola, Intel or P&G — have spoken out against China’s human rights record.
But even a full boycott of the Games — and the Olympics have seen their fair share of boycotts — usually does not achieve much. In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow Olympics in response to the erstwhile Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The then USSR, in retaliation, boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games. It had little effect on the ground. Afghanistan remained under Soviet occupation till 1988. Last year, the chief executive of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee issued an apology to US athletes for the 1980 boycott, saying, “it’s abundantly clear in hindsight that the decision to not send a team to Moscow had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you — American athletes who dedicated themselves to excellence…” These are not simple decisions, even with the benefit of hindsight. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were not boycotted and became a massive propaganda coup for Nazi Germany. But it also saw the making of a legend named Jesse Owens.