International Politics

The Pros and Cons of Boycotting the Winter Olympics

Throughout their history, the games have been the site of not only athletic competition but also intense political battles. Given China’s appalling record of human-rights-abuses, the question arises, what an effective Olympic boycott would look like. 

The Chinese national flag flies behind the logo of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – REUTERS/Thomas Peter/Alamy

The original Olympic Games were the highlight of the ancient Greek world, celebrating the spirit of competition, a spectacle of human achievement and endurance at its height.

That is still the goal of the modern Olympics, and yet it is mired in controversies and acts as a focal point for shining a spotlight on human rights issues. Over the years, there have been boycotts, protests, walkouts and even a gun battle.

The 1972 Olympics in Munich was the scene for the bloodiest attack. Five days before the start of the Games, eight Palestinian gunmen from the Black September organisation broke into the Olympic village. In the ensuing shootout, 11 Israeli athletes were killed, as well as five Palestinians and one police officer. 

Despite the horrific carnage, Avery Arundage who was IOC president at the time, decided to continue the Games after a 34-hour suspension.

The Olympic Games has a long history when it comes to making political statements, from the Berlin Olympics in 1936, hosted by Adolf Hitler. His attempt to prove the supremacy of the Aryan race was badly dented when African-American athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals.

The 2022 Winter Olympics, held in Beijing, is no different. In fact, there seem to be even more protests from a variety of causes including human rights abuses, accusations of genocide, quashing a pro-democracy law in Hong Kong and a clampdown on reporting about sexual abuse.

Hundreds of protestors in many countries have voiced their outrage at China’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims, leading to some activists calling the Beijing Olympics the “Genocide Games.”

There have been demonstrations of Uyghurs and Tibetans in front of the Brandenburg Gate Berlin as well as Tibetan independence groups loudly proclaiming their dissent in New Delhi.

UN experts have estimated that more than a million people from the Uyghur and Muslim communities have been kept in forced labour camps in Xinjiang since 2016.

As recently as January, a criminal complaint was filed with a Turkish lawyer by a group of Uyghurs against Chinese officials, charging them with crimes against humanity, genocide, rape and torture.

“The Beijing Olympic Games promise to be a memorable sporting spectacle, but the watching world cannot willfully ignore what is happening elsewhere in China: the lawyers and activists imprisoned for their peaceful work; the sexual assault survivors punished for speaking up; the thousands estimated to be executed each year; the Muslim ethnic groups facing systematic mass internment, torture and persecution,” said Alkan Akad, Amnesty International’s China Researcher.

“The Games should not be used as a distraction from China’s appalling human rights record. On the contrary, they should be an opportunity to press China to address these issues,” he added.

China has denied such accusations, saying the camps are vocational centres, and suggestions of crimes against humanity are “lies and false information concocted by anti-China forces.”

This is the backdrop to the Winter Olympics 2022, and fortunately for China, the Covid pandemic has led to tight controls on access, with no tickets sold to the general public. Only members of the Communist Party or staff from government-controlled companies have been invited to attend.

Is it possible to prevent athletic competition from being politicized? According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the authority organising the Games, both spheres are absolutely separate. The non-governmental body holds the view that the Olympic Games exists independently from politics.

According to IOC guidelines, it is a “fundamental principle” that sport is neutral and that the athletes should focus on their sport for fear this “may distract the focus from the celebration of athletes’ sporting performances.”

But not speaking out about human rights abuses is in itself a political statement. It’s impossible to sit on the fence. The IOC’s Olympic Charter talks about human dignity, social responsibility and ethical principles. To quote the American writer and political activist Eldridge Cleaver, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” Not speaking out, comes with collusion and an implicit agreement with the status quo.

IOC president Thomas Bach confirmed his personal stance, stating that “The Olympic Games are not about politics. The IOC, as a civil non-governmental organisation, is strictly politically neutral at all times.”

This might be the theory, but Bach himself stepped into a storm of controversy when in error, he called the people of Japan “Chinese”. The gaffe caused much ire from the Japanese, condemning it for lack of respect. Something of a wobble from the IOC president who was trying his best to walk a political and ethical tightrope.

But looking at the rule book of the IOC, the guidelines are very clear. Rule 50—introduced into the Olympic Charter in 1975—prohibits political “demonstration” and “propaganda,” including protests on both political issues and social issues.

What’s evident is that a lot of money rides on the Olympics. The IOC makes its money primarily from broadcasting and licensing deals. NBC has forked out $7.7 billion for broadcasting rights to the Olympic Games up until 2032. Advertising has also proved lucrative. Multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Alibaba, Visa and Samsung have paid out an estimated £1 billion to help fund the Beijing Olympics.

Drilling deeper, the IOC has revealed how much its members receive in funds. They don’t receive a salary but are given generous allowances and per diem payments. President Thomas Bach receives an annual sum of 225,000 euros ($242,000). The IOC also pays for his accommodation in a suite at the Lausanne Palace hotel, which can cost around £1,160 per night.

With such eye-watering amounts of cash at stake, this raises the question as to whether the IOC can be truly “politically neutral”, much as they want to be.

Governments have responded with diplomatic rather than economic boycotts. These have come from the US, UK and Canada, along with India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia. No ministers or officials from these countries are attending, but they all have athletes competing.

It’s hard to see what, if any, effect the largely symbolic gesture of withdrawing diplomats from the Games has, apart from cutting down on the expense of sending officials overseas to stay in luxury hotels. 

So, what does an effective boycott look like? The cause of Peng Shuai is a case in point. The former doubles world number one had posted on social media that she was sexually assaulted by an ex-senior member of the Communist Party. She subsequently disappeared and wasn’t seen in public for some time, leading to the hashtag ‘#WhereisPengShuai trending.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) took affirmative action by suspending all matches in China until the Chinese government confirmed Peng’s safety. A bold move with the potential loss of millions in income, as China had become the WTA’s biggest market in recent times.

A 10-year deal with streaming platform iQiyi as its digital rights partner in China, was worth $120 million. 

What effect this move by the WTA has had is difficult to quantify. What we do know is that Peng Shuai has reappeared, attending the Beijing Olympics, so that at least is proof of life. She has withdrawn the accusations of sexual assault, saying it was all a misunderstanding. But the journalist who interviewed Peng reported that it was impossible to say whether she can speak her mind openly or is being carefully stage-managed and scripted by the Chinese authorities.

Despite the avowed political neutrality of the IOC, the organisation has not always been a passive bystander. 

Rule 50, which has been in the charter in some form since 1975, has been under increasing pressure to change. Times have moved on, with global protests against racial injustice, climate change and human rights abuses bringing political activism into the mainstream. 

Under Rule 50 new guidance, athletes will be able to express their views on the field of play -before competitions. However, protests during competition, in the Olympic village and during ceremonies — which includes on the medal podium, as well as at the opening and closing ceremonies — will remain against Rule 50.

This was very different to the Mexico City Games in 1968. In one of the most iconic images of modern times, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the podium, holding up a black glove with bowed heads. They were protesting against the treatment of black Americans in the United States. As a consequence of their actions, they were promptly banned by the IOC and suspended from the US team. It was effectively the end of their careers. Back in the States, they received death threats and couldn’t find employment for seven years.

“The Olympics are inevitably a moment of passion and drama. That is to be celebrated,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But Beijing’s goal is to use them as a propagandist cover for repression.”

On a positive and more optimistic note, times are changing. The IOC has received the message loud and clear that the organisation needs to embrace people’s right to protest. The sports federation has created a human rights policy for host cities, although we will have to wait for this to come into action at the Paris Games in 2024 and the Milan 2026 Olympics.

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