When Beijing won its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics almost six years ago, it was a joyous moment for China. The city became the first in the world to be selected to host both the Summer and Winter Games, in what seemed like a recognition of the success of the 2008 Summer Games. It was also the third time in a row that the Games went to an Asian country, a record for an event typically dominated by Europe and North America.
When the news was announced at a ceremony in Malaysia, the Chinese delegation cheered, hugged, and cried.
But not everyone was so elated. From the start, some activists called for a boycott of the Beijing Games over China’s human rights record. Back in 2015, that seemed like a fringe view—after all, many Olympic Games have faced calls for boycotts that never came to pass.
However, less than a year out from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, a boycott seems more plausible as Western democracies have grown more vocal about Beijing’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, including Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and its crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong. The US has accused China of genocide, and other countries‘ parliaments have passed resolutions to recognize Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang as such. China views the growing consensus among Western democracies that it is seriously violating the Uyghurs’ human rights as a pretext for a political campaign against it, and has argued that its security measures in Xinjiang are necessary to prevent domestic terrorism.
Those in favor of a boycott argue that the shock of it might encourage China to change its policies—and that either way, it would be immoral for democracies to attend knowing what they do about the situation in Xinjiang.
Experts point to two prominent Olympics boycotts—of the 1936 Berlin Summer Games and the 1980 Moscow Summer Games—to argue that these protests aren’t actually effective at changing the direction of state policy.
“It’s more a way for people to feel good about themselves, for activists in the West to score a win, but the only people who will suffer are the athletes who don’t get to go,” said Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War.
Despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s official line that the games are a politically neutral place to foster global cooperation, half of all Summer Olympic Games have been boycotted by one country or another, points out Sarantakes. Some boycotts were more high-profile than others because they were led by major countries, and others were less so because they were led by countries that rarely win medals—for example, North Korea’s boycott of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and while some countries debated boycotting, most didn’t end up doing so, with the notable exception of the Soviets. (In fact, Germany also hosted the Winter Olympics that same year, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and nobody boycotted it.)
The Soviet boycott didn’t achieve anything, according to Philip D’Agati, author of Cold War and the 1984 Olympic Games: A Soviet-American Surrogate War. Kristallnacht happened two years after the Berlin Games and in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland.
A boycott of the 2022 Olympics, set to take place from Friday, Feb. 4 to Sunday, Feb. 20, would be unlikely to bring about the intended aim of Western governments and human rights activists, which is to change the way China deals with the ethnic and religious minorities it considers a security threat.
Beijing notoriously resents what it calls “meddling” in its “internal affairs,” and is unlikely to respond with a change of tack. Recent attempts to pressure China on the Uyghurs have led to retaliatory moves: Last month in response to joint Western sanctions on four Communist Party officials in Xinjiang, China sanctioned an array of European and British politicians, researchers, and institutions. Similarly, a boycott of the Beijing Games could lead to a retaliatory Chinese boycott of the 2024 Paris Summer Games or the 2026 Milan Winter Games.
Meanwhile, attending the 1936 Games gave the US and others “symbolic victories,” which are often easier to obtain “than actionable change” from host countries, D’Agati says. A Jewish athlete from Austria, Robert Fein, won a gold medal for lightweight lifting. Eighteen Black athletes from the US competed in the Games and one of them, track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens, won four gold medals. Nazi officials, whose views of Black people were about as poor as their opinions of Jews, were forced to recognize his victory. (It’s worth noting that Owens wasn’t welcomed home as a hero either; in fact, US president Franklin Roosevelt chose to only celebrate white Olympians at the White House.)
“The advantage of being the host of the Olympics is that you have the world’s attention—you have a global stage,” says D’Agati. “But one of the disadvantages is that it’s a global stage for anybody on camera.”
For that reason, in a recent New York Times editorial, US senator Mitt Romney, who planned the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, advocated for Washington to send “Chinese dissidents, religious leaders, and ethnic minorities to represent us” in Beijing, “rather than the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials.”
In 1979, after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, US president Jimmy Carter led a boycott of the upcoming Moscow Summer Olympics. Sixty-five countries participated but many key US allies, including the UK, France, and Italy, didn’t. However, the UK and other friendly countries chose to march in the Athletes’s Parade under the Olympic flag and not their own national flags, in support of the US’s boycott.
While Washington held “boycott Olympics” in West Philadelphia, Soviet athletes with less competition won lots of medals. And in retaliation to Carter’s move, the USSR led 14 countries in boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics.
That kind of tit-for-tat escalation is one of the reasons why the IOC fiercely opposes boycotts. When reached for comment, the IOC said that it “has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.” It added that the 1980 and 1984 Games boycotts failed to achieve any political objectives, while harming the athletes who would have participated.
In the end, Soviet forces stayed in Afghanistan for another decade, and left only when the war became too costly and lost domestic support. “The boycott of 1980 did nothing,” says Sarantakes. “It was designed to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan and had no impact on that whatsoever.”
Instead, says Heather Dichter, an associate professor of sport history and sport management at De Montfort University in Leicester, those who suffered most from the boycott were the athletes who couldn’t compete in the Moscow and LA Games. “These are athletes who have trained for years and mostly only ever compete at one Olympic Game—if they even make it to one.”
Some of the same athletes who couldn’t compete in Moscow are now part of Olympic institutions and have spoken about the impact of the missed opportunity of those games. “Olympic Games boycotts…have always failed and always will fail to be an effective strategy for addressing political, social, or military problems,” wrote Anita L. DeFrantz, a member of the IOC executive board and two-time US Olympic athlete. Thomas Bach, the current head of the IOC, called the 1980 boycott a “defining moment” in The Guardian.
“As the chair of the West German athletes’ commission, I strongly opposed this boycott because it punished us for something that we had nothing to do with—the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet army. I had to realize that the sports organizations had very little, if any, political influence, while on the athlete side we had very little say. Our voices were heard neither by the politicians nor by our sports leaders. This was a very humiliating experience.”
Asked about a boycott on the April 11 airing of NBC’s Meet the Press, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken didn’t rule one out, but said “we’re not there yet.”
However as China’s relations with Europe, the US, and Japan grow more acrimonious, the temptation to use a boycott threat as a bargaining chip is likely to grow stronger. Countries like Canada and Australia appear to be seriously considering a boycott. The UK’s prime minister has said the country won’t boycott the Olympics but lawmakers are calling on athletes individually to do so.
A boycott can take more than one form, D’Agati, notes.
“When you attend the Olympics, you attend as a sporting team, you attend as a political delegation, and you attend as an economic delegation,” says D’Agati. “You can shut down any one of those three.” He is in favor of a political boycott of the 2022 Games, in which athletes compete in Beijing while political leaders shun the games and ask their nationals to stay home. He points out that most of the short-term profits made by a host city come through broadcasting rights and ticket sales, so this would have an impact on the success of the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Another possible point of pressure for activists are the Games’ corporate sponsors. It’s a massive and looming test for the corporate world, as buyers increasingly demand companies take ethical stances in their business dealings. Of course, the companies that make up the IOC’s Olympic Partner Program typically sign contracts that extend through the Summer, Winter, and Youth Olympic Games, and a boycott could put them in breach of their contract. But that’s not all. Brands like H&M are currently facing a boycott in China over the positions they’ve taken regarding Xinjiang. If any sponsors were to drop out of these Games, they would risk an even bigger backlash in China’s gigantic consumer market.
While it’s likely that some form of protest will take place around the Games—and some countries, companies, or individual athletes may eventually choose to pull out—D’Agati argues a full boycott of the Beijing Games is unlikely. Because of Covid-19, the Summer and Winter Games will take place within a few months of one another. He believes that when IOC officials and some world leaders meet in person in Tokyo in July, it will “give the Olympic committee a chance to steer this conversation.”
“Once we walk away from Tokyo and we have the images of victory, I think it’s going to remind everybody why these things exist,” he says, “and it’s going to make it patently impossible for governments to pull off a boycott.”