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With ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Olympics, Biden seeks middle ground

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Olympic boycotts tend not to work. The one in 1956 by Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands over the Soviet invasion of Hungary had little geopolitical impact. Most of Washington’s European allies failed to join President Carter’s 1980 boycott of the Moscow Games, undermining its goal to isolate the Soviets while dashing the gold, silver and bronze dreams of American athletes.

Ahead of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, President Biden is taking a different tack. Last week, the White House announced that no U.S. government officials would attend the Games, though athletes could still compete. The “diplomatic boycott” aims to protest Beijing’s human rights abuses, and especially its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. China stands accused of incarcerating more than 1 million Uyghurs in harsh “political education” camps and prisons, while indoctrinating their children and engaging in torture — charges China denies.

This isn’t the first time a world leader has sat out an Olympic event hosted by China to make a point, but the effort this year is the most far-reaching. Since the United States announced its diplomatic boycott last week, New Zealand, Britain, Australia, Canada and Kosovo have followed suit. Days before the U.S. announcement, representatives of top Lithuanian officials reportedly said the officials would not attend.

By embracing what some critics have dismissed as a half-measure, Biden and other leaders may nevertheless be on to something. Full boycotts, experts say, are blunt instruments that often do little harm to boycotted nations while inflicting real pain on the boycotters. Star athletes are robbed of their peak windows to medal. Making things worse, bitter fissures can be opened between the politicians who declare them and the competitors, domestic sports officials, broadcasters, corporate sponsors and domestic viewers who suffer from those decisions.

When boycotts, or threats of boycotts, do become agents of change — as in 1968, when African nations vowed to walk if apartheid South Africa wasn’t barred from competition, which it ultimately was — it is typically because of overwhelming participation and specific, sports-related goals, Heather Dichter, a professor at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University in Leicester, England, argued in The Post.

While a diplomatic boycott may be just as unlikely to spark change as a full boycott, it could fulfill a narrower purpose: To show disapproval and raise awareness — in this case, of China’s serious human rights abuses — without penalizing athletes.

“What Biden is doing, rather than opening himself to criticism of punishing his own athletes more than the Chinese government, is sending a diplomatic signal of disapproval,” John Soares, a professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about politics and the Olympics, recently told me. “Even if that doesn’t change things overnight, it serves notice to the Chinese government. … [And maybe] you can gradually affect some change, as regimes that used to not talk about human rights at least start to talk about them.”

The Biden administration’s efforts may not gain much traction if more countries don’t follow suit. But the international showing so far — hardly overwhelming — also underscores the risk that Washington would have seen even fewer countries participate in a full boycott, potentially embarrassing the United States as much, if not more, than China. Voice of America noted that winter sport powerhouse Norway will not join the United States in a diplomatic boycott, nor will NATO allies France and Italy. Eastern European governments like Poland and Hungary, with weak track records on human rights and an eagerness to court China as an economic partner, are also ignoring the boycott.

“If it’s only what the Chinese sometimes call the ‘Anglo-Saxon clique,’ if the vast majority of the nearly 100 countries participating don’t follow at all or take a long time to follow, then [the diplomatic boycott] will have less impact,” Susan Brownell, an anthropology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis with expertise in Chinese sports and the Olympic Games, told VOA Mandarin last week.

Beijing’s official response, my colleague Lily Kuo reported, is that China couldn’t care less about the Biden boycott and that American officials were never invited anyway. But in a news conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sure sounded wounded, threatening that Washington would “pay a price for its wrong behavior.”

As an awareness tool, the diplomatic boycott may already be working. Zumretay Arkin, a Uyghur activist, recently told me that she had hoped for a full U.S. boycott of the Games, “because, in our view, genocide should be a red line for the international community.” But she also saw Biden’s decision as a powerful victory that suddenly propelled the Uyghurs to the top of the global agenda. China had initially denied the Uyghur camps existed, though later conceded they did — calling them vocational centers to combat extremism. In late 2019, Reuters reported, China said all people in the camps had “graduated.”

“We’ve definitely made some headlines before, but since the announcement of the boycott, it’s been nonstop,” Arkin said. She continued: “Now, people who never knew the Uyghurs before are hearing about us, they’re reading about us. I’d call that a victory.”

Heads of state have used their absence at the Olympics to signal displeasure before. Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t attend the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, and senior German officials didn’t go to the showy Opening Ceremonies — though Berlin insisted that their absence should not be seen as a “boycott” related to China’s crackdown in Tibet. Donald Tusk, then the Polish prime minister, made a finer point of skipping the opening events.

“The presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate,” Tusk said at the time. “I do not intend to take part.”

Leaders have also found other ways to send political messages at the Olympics. President Barack Obama named openly gay athletes Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow to prominent positions in the U.S. Olympic delegation to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, a move widely seen as a shot across the bows to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay policies.

Yet experts still see the broader “diplomatic boycott” used this year as a relatively novel concept, and Biden is winning praise for deploying it from some unlikely quarters.

The Florida-based outlet Baptist News Global opined that “a broader-than-usual coalition of religious liberty and human rights groups are praising the Biden administration’s Dec. 6 announcement that the United States will not send a diplomatic delegation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.”

My colleagues recently noted that even some, if certainly not all, of Biden’s most well-known Republican critics hailed his decision. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — hardly a Biden backer — pushed back against calls from some Republicans for a full boycott.

“I don’t agree with what some people are calling for, which is a boycott of our athletes, which is stopping our athletes from going to the Olympics,” he said during a radio interview last week. He added: “I think there are young men and young women who have spent years, decades practicing and getting ready for the Olympics. And I don’t think it’s fair to make them the victims.”

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