The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A boycott of the Olympics won’t force China to change

Neither a diplomatic boycott nor refusing to send American athletes will improve China’s human rights record.

In Istanbul, ethnic Uyghur demonstrators take part in a June 23 protest calling for a boycott of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. (Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Monday, the White House responded to calls for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics by announcing a diplomatic boycott — no American officials will attend the games, but U.S. athletes will still compete. The push for a boycott stems from China’s deplorable treatment of the Uyghur people and democracy activists in Hong Kong. Concerns regarding the whereabouts and safety of former tennis player Peng Shuai only intensified these calls in November. Yet the outcome is not a surprise; a total boycott by the United States was never in the cards. Calls to skip the Olympic Games are not new, but only when countries take collective action and the cause of a boycott relates to sport have they produced more than negative publicity.

The first real boycott threat to the Olympics came before the 1936 Games hosted by Nazi Germany. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the Games in 1931 when the country was still the democratic Weimar Republic. As Hitler’s Third Reich imposed greater restrictions on its Jewish population, a boycott movement grew, most prominently in the United States, but also Canada, Great Britain and elsewhere in Europe.

American sport leader Avery Brundage toured Germany and reassured U.S. Olympic officials that claims of repression were exaggerated and that the German sport leaders would allow German Jewish athletes to compete if they qualified. Brundage’s report convinced the United States to send its team to the games.

The typical “No Jews Allowed” signs ever-present in Nazi Germany were temporarily removed during the Olympics and the first live television broadcast of the games created the positive worldwide impression the Third Reich desired — even if the brilliant performances of Jesse Owens and other Black athletes from the United States disproved the regime’s racist beliefs.

There would not be widespread calls for another Olympic boycott again for decades. Yet, individual countries did sit out Olympics for political reasons — something largely forgotten in public memory because these boycotts barely caused a ripple.

Switzerland and Spain, for example, did not send teams to the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The Dutch athletes arrived in Australia to compete, but the Netherlands recalled them over this issue as well. Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon boycotted these Olympics too — but for a different reason, the Suez Crisis. The little-noticed absence of these athletes from competition had no effect on global politics.

But in 1976, a more significant boycott took place. More than 30 African states had threatened to sit out the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City if the IOC did not rescind apartheid South Africa’s invitation. The IOC did so and avoided the spectacle of a broad protest. But eight years later, South African apartheid again cast a shadow over the games. While South Africa remained excluded, New Zealand was competing, and the country had violated international sporting agreements and sent its national rugby team, the All Blacks, to South Africa to play. The African states demanded the IOC expel New Zealand, but the committee refused to do so because rugby had not been on the Olympic program since 1924 (it only returned in 2016).

So the African nations boycotted, with some withdrawing athletes already in Montreal. Unlike the earlier state boycotts, this move contributed to the signing of the Gleneagles Agreement in 1977 among British Commonwealth states, which discouraged any sporting contacts with South Africa. Canada took a leading role in the development of this political agreement because Edmonton was hosting the 1978 Commonwealth Games and did not want a repeat of the Montreal boycott, which would have left the country with a largely all-White sporting event.

This shift to consider boycotting over third-party actions (in this case, New Zealand’s willingness to compete against South Africa) marked a further step to isolate the apartheid state while also demonstrating the growing power of the Global South. In contrast to the very few states which boycotted Melbourne over Soviet actions, the impact of the African boycott of Montreal revealed that refusing to send athletes to the Olympics could achieve a goal — if the move had the support of a significant number of states and the boycotting states had a clear goal within sport itself.

That was not the case in 1980, when the West boycotted the Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, nor in 1984, when communist countries reciprocated by not participating in the Los Angeles Games. Because their goals had little to do with sport, these boycotts didn’t really achieve much. They were also undercut by the lack of a unified front. In 1980, several Western nations — including Great Britain, France, Australia and U.S. territory Puerto Rico — participated in Moscow under the name of their national Olympic committee, while in 1984, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu broke with the Soviet bloc and sent his athletes to Los Angeles. But the reality was that political leaders had no interest in making policy decisions over the Olympics, nor did sport leaders possess power to compel them to change course.

More recent calls to boycott the Olympics have returned to their roots, owing not to international politics, but to the domestic policies of the host nation. Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics, activists called for a boycott over recently introduced anti-LGBT laws in Russia. The United States, France and Germany responded by refusing to send their presidents to Sochi. President Barack Obama also selected three openly LGBT individuals — tennis legend Billy Jean King, ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow and figure skater Brian Boitano — for the U.S. delegations at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. These moves were intended to damage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to show Russia in a positive light on the global stage. Combined with the astronomical costs for the Sochi games and post-Olympic infrastructure disuse, media coverage of the Sochi Olympics was largely negative. From a sporting perspective, though, the Sochi Games were a success because all the athletes who qualified competed — in contrast to 1980. Obama’s move showed the limits of Olympic boycotts. Targeted boycotts focused on the host nation — but not athletes — can generate negative publicity, but they have little ability to influence the objectionable policy that produced demands for a boycott.

This history reveals the probable outcome of President Biden’s decision not to send U.S. officials to Beijing. While it might produce negative headlines for China, it won’t compel China to change its behavior. Nor would a complete boycott have done so. Such a move only would have hurt the athletes who lost the opportunity to participate. According to Olympic historian Bill Mallon, only about 30 percent of all Olympic athletes compete at more than one Olympic Games. A boycott would cost these athletes their one chance to compete on the world’s most significant stage, with the attendant chance for stardom and sponsorships.

When it selected Beijing to host the 2008 Summer Games, the IOC hoped that the prestige of organizing the Games would force China to open up, particularly with regards to the free press, and implement greener policies to tackle air pollution. These hopes have failed to materialize. After several Western cities withdrew from the contest to host the 2022 Winter Games, the IOC chose the Chinese capital over Almaty, Kazakhstan. Once the IOC awarded the games to China — a country that annually hosts high profile sporting events — it left governments with limited options.

Calls for a boycott or even a boycott itself simply weren’t going to change Chinese government policy. While Biden’s diplomatic boycott might produce negative attention regarding China’s human rights record, China has now threatened political retribution for the move. If China really does follow through with a political response, it would mark the first time sport was retaliated with politics. When the Games open on February 4, the world’s attention will focus on athletes’ personal stories and success winning medals. Just like the first time Beijing hosted the Games, athletes will compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and calls for a boycott will not make any lasting change in China or its policies.