AMU Asia Original

The US Boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympics: Will It Work?

By William Tucker
Edge Contributor

It’s no particular secret that China is angry with the United States. Considering the tensions between the two nations, this state of affairs is not surprising.

In what is supposed to be a moment of national glory as the 2022 host of the Olympic Games, Beijing finds itself facing several diplomatic boycotts from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and Canada because of China’s record of human rights abuses. Washington decided to avoid sending government officials to Beijing as a form of punishment for China and to highlight international issues.

The genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the loss of freedoms in Hong Kong have sparked international rows over China’s behavior. Other problems include territorial issues in the South China Sea and the threats levied towards Taiwan.

China has threatened retaliation. However, Beijing has not been clear regarding what form that retaliation will take, other than calling forthcoming measures “resolute.”

Politics Inevitably Seep into the Olympic Games

For Washington, the U.S. boycott of the Olympic Games is meant to be low-risk. However, the boycott leaves U.S. athletes exposed in a hostile nation for an action that is likely to result in very little to no benefit. 

Though the Olympics are not meant to be political, athletes around the world compete under their national flag. Should those athletes win a gold medal, they stand on a podium while their national anthem plays.

The reality is that during an international event such as the Olympic Games, it is simply unavoidable to have politics or diplomatic tensions play out publicly. For instance, the opening ceremonies of the Games typically display local culture or heritage, but also carry elements of political ideology.

When Nazi Germany hosted the Olympic Games in the 1930s, those Games were one example of an unapologetic and ideological display of Nazi ideology. Although other nations have not come close to such demonstrations at the level shown by Nazi Germany, they are not innocent of it, either.

Hosting the Olympic Games creates a sense of pride in the host country. When diplomatic tensions are present, those tensions only increase and Olympic athletes inevitably become political pawns.

Boycotts of the Games Have Happened in the Past

Naturally, this boycott of the 2022 Olympics is not the first boycott of its kind. The U.S. and the Soviet Union both employed boycotts in the 1980s that saw their respective athletes miss their chance to compete.

Olympic Athletics Could Face Hostility from the Government or Local Citizens

One strange benefit of a full boycott is that in the past, athletes of boycotting nations were not necessarily exposed to any potential hostile actions while residing in the host nation. Now, the athletes of those nations involved in a diplomatic boycott may find themselves the targets of host nation hostility, either from the government or local citizens. In an era where U.S. diplomats working abroad have suffered from overt harassment to debilitating health issues such as Havana Syndrome, threats should be considered.

A Boycott Won’t Change the International Situation with China

The Biden administration likely feels that sending diplomats to the Games would suggest its tacit approval of Chinese behavior and the government of Xi Jinping. Though the boycott would deny China a certain prestige, Beijing was limiting attendance anyway, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is possible that the boycott will keep China’s untoward behavior in the spotlight, but it is unlikely to bring about any real change.

Boycotts of previous Olympic Games or other international sporting events have done little to effect political change on the part of the host nation. This boycott will not change Chinese interests any more than it will change the manner in which China pursues those interests.

In response to the planned diplomatic boycott, French President Emmanuel Macron stated, “I don’t think we should politicize these topics, especially if it’s to take steps that are insignificant and symbolic.” The boycott with China should not be considered insignificant, but it may play out differently than in the way Washington and its allies intended.

William Tucker serves as a senior security representative to a major government contractor where he acts as the Counterintelligence Officer, advises on counterterrorism issues, and prepares personnel for overseas travel. His additional duties include advising his superiors in matters concerning emergency management and business continuity planning.

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