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  • Laura Howard

Olympic Boycott Little More Than Gesture Politics

As featured in Edition 39, available here.

BY LAURA HOWARD (2nd year - History and Politics - Nottingham, UK)

The ongoing debates over the effectiveness and impact of boycotting sporting events have recently come to a head, as states, including the US and the UK, have made statements about their intentions for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

The discussions come due to concerns over China’s human rights abuses, with accusations of the ongoing genocide of Uyghur Muslims. This is alongside other issues, such as worry over the safety of tennis player Peng Shuai, who has not been seen in public since accusing Vice Premier Zhang of sexual assault.

In this context, it appears necessary that countries take action against a state that is seen to be guilty of crimes against humanity. Yet, is the Olympics an effective arena to voice protest against these actions?

On Monday, December 6th, the US announced that they would not be sending official delegates to the Olympics commencing in Beijing in February 2022. This, however, does not constitute a full boycott, as their athletes will still be allowed to attend and will be supported by the government in doing so. It simply means that US government officials will not be present at the games.

China has responded by accusing the US of politicising a sporting event that is meant to remain separate from any political arena. They have also suggested it is unfair on athletes, and that US delegates had not even been invited yet.

Canada, the UK, and Australia have all announced similar measures of refusing to send diplomats to the games. Boris Johnson commented at PMQs that he does not “think that [full] sporting boycotts are sensible and that remains the policy of the government”.

They draw upon a familiar canon of reasoning that emerges from this debate. Should the Olympics be an event devoid of any degree of ‘political posturing’? And is it simply unfair on athletes whose careers this affects to boycott and remove their chance for success in a high-profile competition that only occurs once every four years?

The nature of the offences China is committing surely justifies any degree of action against them. Sanctions against genocide must be seen to extend beyond what constitutes political posturing and rather a necessary step to protect the lives of those unjustly subject to such atrocities. Whether the US and other nations in the boycott are solely motivated by opposing genocide is difficult to ascertain, such is the cynicism with which international relations can be judged given nations’ self-serving propensities.

The measure to not send diplomats and leave athletes unaffected certainly mitigates the argument of unfairness to competitors who will see little to no impact on their chances of success and ability to compete. Whilst those involved in this form of boycott are unlikely to promote the games as much as they otherwise would, this seems an understandable trade for those competing, who must recognise the appalling nature of offences committed by China.

However, whether these actions to boycott, which on the surface represent little impact, can be viewed as anything more than gesture politics is questionable. This is, after all, an Olympic Games that was already expected to gain less attention - coming so close after the summer Olympics, seeing few high-profile athletes from countries like the US competing, and the Covid pandemic still ongoing, causing limits to travel. The boycott will thus do less to apply international pressure because of already lacking attention to events.

Hence, it appears the US, along with the UK, Canada, and Australia, as well as other nations expected to follow their lead, have merely taken measures that allow administrations to register their disapproval without too much impact on things that really matter to them. These being trade and the economy rather than an effective defence of human rights.

Whilst China has responded to the announcements of diplomatic boycotts by saying they will take ‘resolute countermeasures’, the repercussions are unlikely to be too significant.

Authoritarian states such as China have tended to use events like the Olympics as propaganda tools to legitimate their administration to a global public, and thus cede accountability for atrocities being committed. Whilst Beijing 2022 may have less attention due to international circumstances, the boycott will contribute relatively little to this lacking attention and still not do enough to stop its use for legitimation in the ceremonial aspects of the games, as happened in 2008.

It is thus apparent that not sending an official delegation to an ill-attended and ill-publicised games is completely inadequate to stop abuses on the scale of the genocide of Uyghur Muslims.

Image: Unsplash (Zhang Kaiyv)



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