Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

  • IASbaba
  • December 11, 2021
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Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

Context: The United States recently announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022, a move that was quickly followed by Australia, Britain and Canada.

What is a diplomatic boycott?

  • Those who remember the 1980s may think of an Olympic boycott as countries staying home, athletes and all. But the US diplomatic boycott will prevent only government officials from attending. 
  • Typically, high-ranking officials from many countries attend the Games, which are among the biggest international gatherings outside of UN and major summits.

What reason did the US give for the boycott?

  • US has cited “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, in western China as the reason for the boycott. 
    • The Chinese government has cracked down harshly on Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in that region, including mass detentions and forced use of contraception and sterilizations.
    • The Australian government, which has had diplomatic fallout with China over this issue, too cited the same reason.
  • The recent case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a former top government official of sexually assaulting her, also contributed to this decision. Moments after Peng Shuai made her allegations, on Chinese social media, the posts were taken down and she disappeared from public view for days. 
  • The International Olympic Committee said it called her twice, but questions were raised about how freely she was speaking.
  • Domestically there is a bipartisan support in the USA regarding this move. If anything, the criticism has come from Republicans who say the decision does not go far enough. 

Does it mean anything for US athletes at the Olympics?

  • Although the hostility between the nations may make for some uncomfortable moments for the American delegation in Beijing, there are not expected to be any significant effects. 
  • American athletes are to travel to China and compete in their events as scheduled.
  • Some American Olympic athletes are speaking out about China & about human rights violations. However, the International Olympic Committee has always asserted that the Games are nonpolitical. As such, it has strict rules about athletes protesting while at the Games.
  • Nevertheless, even those top athletes who have condemned human rights abuses say they plan to compete at the Games.

Is there a precedent for a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics?

  • The first major boycott of an Olympics came in 1976 when about 30 mostly African nations sat out the Montreal Games. They contended that because a New Zealand rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa, New Zealand should be barred from the Games.
  • The most prominent boycott came in 1980, when more than 60 countries, led by the United States, boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. 
  • In 1984, the Soviet Union led more than a dozen countries in a boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Although the cited reason was security concerns, there is little doubt the move was essentially a tit-for-tat measure for the 1980 boycott.
  • In 2014, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Michelle Obama, the first lady, all skipped the Sochi Olympics in Russia. 
  • France and Germany also did not send top-ranking officials. 
  • Although it was not a full-fledged diplomatic boycott, the move was seen as a disapproval of Russia’s crackdown on gay rights.
  • The 2014 Sochi Olympics boycott was also possibly motivated by Russia’s giving political asylum to Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents about American spying.

Have boycotts been effective?

  • The boycott of the Moscow Games did not appear to have any effect on Soviet foreign policy; troops from the country remained in Afghanistan until 1989.
  • One of the key differences between then and now is money. The Olympics now are a billion-dollar enterprise and a boycott could cost teams and a sport a fortune, especially the US since American broadcaster NBC pays billions of dollars to the International Olympic Committee to show the Games
  • An international consensus seems to have emerged that sweeping boycotts that include athletes are ineffective and serve only to penalize sportsmen and women. 
  • While boycotts may not change policy, they do run the risk of reprisals, as was seen in 1984. Sure enough, section in China has called for boycott the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028.

How has China reacted to this?

  • China has said it is “not bothered at all” by the boycotts. 
  • Global Times, China’s state-run newspaper, dismissed Australia’s decision as “immature, arrogant and stupid” while the government said the boycotting countries will “pay a price”.
  • Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson stated “The United States, Britain and Australia have used the Olympics platform for political manipulation and they will have to pay the price for their mistaken acts.”

Connecting the dots:

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