How the U.S. Boycott of the Beijing Olympics Is Splitting the World

The last time the U.S. boycotted an Olympic Games, China joined in—withdrawing from the 1980 Moscow Games along with at least 44 other nations, ostensibly to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Chinese leaders even sent 18 athletes to the Liberty Bell Classic in Philadelphia, which was billed as the “Alternative” to the main event in Moscow. The Soviet Union and its allies resisted the offer to withdraw their athletes from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, as part of a Cold War coup d’état.

Today, China has become the object of an Olympic boycott. This is four decades after it was founded. The U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia have joined together for a “diplomatic boycott”—no government officials will attend the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, though athletes from the countries will still compete. Japan stated that it would also hold high-ranking government officials. Olympic athletes will also be represented by the Olympic officials.
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Beijing isn’t facing the same diplomatic sanctions as those of Cold War-era. Others U.S. allies include South Korea FranceThey have stated that they won’t participate in the diplomatic ban. China had already declared their support for the boycott. Only COVID-19 Protocols are strictly adhered toWithout mandatory quarantine and other restrictions, Beijing was likely to be visited by far fewer dignitaries.

But the moves mark the end of a global detente over the Olympics that has lasted since the end of the Cold War—sustaining through the first Beijing Olympics in 2008,2014 Winter Games at Sochi in Russia. This may just be the start, experts say.

China has responded furiously, accusing the boycotting nations of politicizing sports and threatening that they would “Pay a price for their erroneous actions.” If tensions do not ebb, Chinese officials could consider a similar move—or other punitive measure—for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, observers say.

Olympic Boycotts – A 2.300-Year Historical Record

Opening Ceremony for the 1980 Olympic Games
Jerry Cooke–Corbis/Getty ImagesA total of 67 nations did not participate at the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics—at least 45 of which withdrew as a result of the U.S.-led boycott.

Boycotts aren’t new to the Olympics: In 332 BCE, Athens Threatened to Withdraw from the ancient games after one of the city’s athletes was accused of fixing a match by bribing his opponents. In the modern era, however, countries’ Olympic boycotts have become a showcase for major geopolitical disputes. Though a specific action or policy is usually given as justification for the boycott announcement—as with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—wider political tensions have been at the heart of the decision.

Washington, Washington, and all other capitals participating in the event, cite China as a source of human rights violations. Atrocities committed against Uyghursand ethnic minorities of Xinjiang and crackdowns on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.

Although calls for boycotts were made months prior to the Games’ opening, they took on new life in November. Chinese tennis player Peng ShuaiShe disappeared after making shocking allegations of sexual assault against an ex-top official in the Communist Party. Later, she resurfaced after making a string of public appearances that were covered by the state-run media. However, all Peng discussion has been restricted in China.

Olympic boycotts and calls for boycotts have been effective in calling global attention to an issue—though not necessarily in changing a host nation’s behavior. Because of this, human rights activists called on athletes to withdraw from the 1936 Olympics at Berlin. Nazi Germany was ruled. Athletes from 49 countries—a record at the time—still joined, including Black American track superstar Jesse Owens, who embarrassed the white-supremacist regime by winning four gold medals.

Continue reading: See the Controversial Drama of Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Summer Olympics

There are more than 20 African countriesTo protest the exclusion New Zealand, New Zealand withdrew its participation in 1976 Montreal Summer Games. This was after the rugby team had toured Apartheid South Africa. New Zealand won the game and took part. This year 15 gold medals. South Africa was banned in 1964 for its Apartheid racist policies.

Most notable boycotts occurred at the 1984 and 1980 Olympic Games. Many nations, including the United States, refused to send their athletes to the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The U.S.S.R. and 13 other governments declined to send their athletes to the following Summer Olympics in Los Angeles—They claim they are not safe.

According to Olympic history specialists, however, those boycotts had a major historical impact on the athletes that were banned from participating. “That was always one of the biggest problems at the boycotts in 1980 and 1984, was that many felt, and especially with hindsight, that it was the athletes that suffered,” says Toby Rider, an associate professor of sport history at California State University.

It also didn’t change Soviet policy in Afghanistan. “The boycott didn’t really didn’t really prove a point. I mean, it didn’t stop the Soviets from invading Afghanistan,” Rider adds.

Sports neutrality is becoming more important due to political tensions

Ola Fagerstrom—Getty ImagesBeijing 2008 Summer Olympics: The closing ceremony. Though some dignitaries declined to attend the Beijing Games—many world leaders, including the U.S. President, were there.

Since its inception, the International Olympic Committee has managed to maintain a separation between politics and sport for nearly forty years. That strategy was mostly effective during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—which many observers regard as China’s “coming out party” on the world stage. Some political leaders and dignitaries declined to attend the opening ceremony—though U.S. President George W. Bush attended..

However, the IOC’s stated political neutrality has increasingly come under fire. Human Rights WatchPeng accused the IOC of providing cover for Beijing during a meeting with Peng over video chat in the midst of concerns about Peng’s wellbeing. Peng claimed she was secure, however the IOC did not respond to questions regarding her claims against senior members of the Community Party.

In October, the World Uyghur Congress, an international organization advocating Uyghurs’ rights, urged governments to withdraw from the Games, saying participants would be complicit with “genocide” in China.

Jules Boykoff, a sports politics expert at the Pacific University in Oregon tells TIME that, ultimately, the political tensions between the U.S. and China won out—though it’s clear the boycotts were calibrated to send a message without punishing athletes.

“The stakes are very high to raise the alarm against China’s human rights violations— without falling into what we might think of as a Cold War trap,” Jules Boykoff, a sports politics expert at the Pacific University in Oregon tells TIME.

The IOC, for its part, acknowledges that some of the political issues have become intractable—but says the Games must continue regardless. “Those games are not going to be cancelled, and people need to understand that,” Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, says.

Pound (Canadian) also suggested that diplomatic boycotts could be enough to convey a message about China. “They also need to know that there’s now a line in the sand, which is twofold: one is that the games will go on, and two—that a number of countries in the world are going to require China to address some of these concerns in a meaningful way,” he says.

On that second point, Rider—who has studied the dynamic of the Olympic Games during the Cold War—disagrees. Just as the 1980 boycott didn’t change the Soviet stance in Afghanistan, China is unlikely to make changes over human rights complaints in Xinjiang—which Beijing both denies, and regards as an internal matter.

“I highly doubt that this particular boycott, if it stays, will make China change its foreign and domestic policy in terms of human rights,” Rider says.

Stuart Murray is a diplomat and sports policy expert who teaches at Bond University, Australia. He believes that the diplomatic boycott by four nations of the Beijing Games will lead to a new wave of actions or boycotts involving the future Olympics.

“We refer to the great power conflict as the great game,” says Murray. “And that’s what you’re seeing through the Olympics.”


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