Opinion / Strategy

Bad Idea: Expecting Olympic Boycotts to be a Useful Diplomatic Tool

On February 4, 2022, an Olympic cauldron will be lit in the city of Beijing for the second time in fewer than 14 years. In so doing, Olympic history will be made as Beijing becomes the first city to have hosted both the Summer and Winter games. Since the historic bid in 2015, the 2022 Beijing Olympics have been the focus of much controversy, with widespread calls for the games to be relocated or boycotted. For years, human rights groups and activists have campaigned against Beijing’s role as host, citing the Chinese government’s myriad human rights violations. These violations include surveillance operations and political imprisonments in Tibet; the “re-education,” surveillance, and forced labor of Uyghurs in Xinjiang; antidemocratic crackdowns in Hong Kong; and cultural repression in Southern Mongolia. These calls mirror similar efforts surrounding the 2008 Olympics, when human rights groups, celebrities, and politicians alike protested China’s hosting of the games.

The Olympics have long been a source of international political controversy. Ironically enough, the debate in Washington about how the United States should approach the 2022 Olympics is inextricably tied to the same country that inspired the only other U.S. Olympic boycott in history: Afghanistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan motivated the Carter administration to push for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and now the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of the American-backed government in Kabul is raising serious questions about U.S. global power, prestige, and credibility. It is no accident that in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul, global attention shifted eastward to the Taiwan Strait, particularly as Chinese state media exploited the chaos in Afghanistan as the “death knell of U.S. hegemony.” Indeed, the fall of Kabul has precipitated the latest pressure on U.S. policymakers to quickly and decisively repel China’s efforts to advance the narrative of American decline.

Enter the 2022 Olympic games, which have emerged as an appealing and timely venue for the United States to limit China’s efforts to increase its global legitimacy. Taking action, the Biden administration announced on December 6 that no official U.S. delegation will attend the games this winter. Since the announcement, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia have joined the diplomatic boycott. However, the popular tools to limit a host’s ability to exploit the Olympics are mostly weak and ineffectual. A boycott of any form from the United States and partners will have little to no impact on shaping China’s behavior and may in fact distract from real levers capable of curbing how the games serve Chinese leadership.

Obviously, Olympic boycotts are not without historical precedent. However, many are surprised to learn that more than 60 other countries joined the United States in boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Any boycott today—even just a diplomatic one—will be far smaller given the importance of maintaining a strong relationship with China for many economically dependent countries around the globe. Indeed, it is unlikely that the diplomatic boycott of Beijing will grow to be larger than 10 or 20 nations overall. But even with robust participation, the impact of Olympic boycotts is negligible.

Hoping to weaken Moscow’s resolve in Afghanistan, the U.S. 1980 boycott failed to make any significant impact on the war that would drag on for nearly another decade (with the United States famously pursuing an alternative approach to counter the Soviets in Afghanistan). Arguably the greatest impact of the boycott was on the medal count; Soviet athletes won 195 medals in 1980—the second most of any country in Olympic history—to the great delight of the Communist Party’s most important audience: the domestic one.

Fast forward four years to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and the Soviet Bloc engaged in a retaliatory boycott. As the U.S. team cruised to 174 medals of its own (third all-time), American collective memory of those games is dominated by images of victory and patriotism. It is about who was there, not who wasn’t.

Admittedly, the United States and other like-minded governments are in a difficult position. The pressure to do something is tangible, and resorting to a diplomatic boycott is certainly justifiable. But it is ultimately a toothless gesture that on its own does little more than provide fuel for Beijing’s propagandists to advance the narrative that, despite China’s best efforts to achieve its rightful position peacefully and productively on the global stage, Washington continues to victimize and isolate China.

Accordingly, in response to the announcement of the diplomatic snub, Beijing’s response has wavered between two extremes. On one end, Chinese officials threatened that countries participating in the diplomatic boycott will “pay the price for their wrongdoing.” On the other, they claimed that U.S. diplomats were not invited in the first place, likening the United States to “the village bully who doesn’t get an invite to your wedding banquet but loudly tells everyone he won’t be attending.” Invited or not, the lack of U.S. and allied diplomatic presence will do little to generate meaningful attention on the human suffering that motivated the decision to boycott in the first place. Perhaps more than anything, it allows Western leadership to feel as though they have tried their best while risking very little.

None of this is to say that the United States should allow Beijing unchecked authority to use the games to weave its own narrative that will inevitably avoid any reckoning with its human rights record. Since Beijing last hosted the Olympics, a wave of international “sportswashing” has continued to crest. Campaigns to boycott the 2022 Olympics on the merits of China’s human rights record are accompanied by similar calls in connection to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Likewise, the recent purchase of the English football club Newcastle United by a Saudi investment fund with state ties has raised new questions about how (or whether) sports bodies should reckon with the human rights records of their patrons.

Undoubtedly, sports are a powerful tool to shape and amplify social, political, or diplomatic messaging to a global audience. As underscored by the images of Jesse Owens in 1936, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” Mary Lou Retton in 1984, or Beijing’s ensemble of drummers in 2008, the Olympics are as much about sport as they are about the stories and memories birthed by sport. Host countries have immense control over the narrative of their games, designing the pageantry of the ceremonies, and exerting significant influence over the imagery that is broadcast both at home and internationally. However, it is within the creation of this narrative where the most powerful vehicles to shine light upon China’s abuses reside.

The paths to effectively advance human rights through activism at the Olympics are narrow and the risks, particularly for athletes, are high. Athletes who do speak out jeopardize their athletic careers and economic livelihoods, and they will become lightning rods for controversy. Despite these risks, there is little doubt that some brave athletes will use the games as a platform to speak out against abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Perhaps, like we have seen in connection to Qatar’s upcoming World Cup, they will wear human rights messages on their clothing. However, any meaningful effort to promote activism will need to be supported by those who are broadcasting the games internationally. While the direct images out of Beijing will almost certainly be tightly controlled, the surrounding commentary and NBC programming will not. In a multi-billion dollar deal to broadcast the Olympics—NBC rights to broadcast the games reportedly account for nearly half of the IOC’s overall operating revenue—there is leverage to use the platform of the games to illuminate and educate American and international audiences about the events in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.

Perhaps the most promising development amid growing global concern over sportswashing are the recent actions taken by another international sporting body: the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). The WTA in early-December 2021 decided to directly confront Beijing over the treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, who disappeared from public view after accusing a former senior Chinese official of sexual assault. The economic consequences of this decision for the WTA will be substantial. The tour held nine tournaments in China in 2019 and the Chinese market accounts for a significant portion of the WTA’s revenue. Nonetheless, the broader stakes were articulately captured in WTA Chairman’s Steve Simon’s statement on the issue: “I hope leaders around the world will continue to speak out so justice can be done for Peng, and all women, no matter the financial ramifications.” In the arena of international sport, the WTA’s actions should be commended and serve as a model for advancing human rights even at great cost.

Ultimately, as we are only weeks away from the 2022 Olympic and the options for using the games as a vehicle for meaningful action dwindle, there is a certain logic to American IOC member Julian Roosevelt’s argument in opposition to the 1980 Olympic boycott: “I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but the patriotic thing to do is for us to send a team over there and whip their ass.”

(Photo Credit: Sam from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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