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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. The White House said last week that the Games would not be attended by any U.S. officials, although athletes can still participate. The “diplomatic boycott” is intended to protest Beijing’s violations of human rights, especially the treatment of Uyghurs from Xinjiang. 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. New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Kosovo all followed the lead of America’s diplomatic boycott. 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. The star athletes lose their chance to win a medal. Even worse is the possibility of bitter spats between politicians and competitors.
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 it doesn’t make a big difference, it is a signal to China. … [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. The boycott is also being ignored by Eastern European countries like Poland, Hungary and Hungary. These nations have poor human rights records and are eager to be considered as an economic partner.
“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 Archin, an activist Uyghur, told me recently that she had hoped that the U.S. would boycott the Games. “We believe genocide should not be considered a red line for international communities.” However, she saw Biden’s announcement as a significant victory, which propelled Uyghurs up the world agenda. China initially denied that Uyghur camps exist, but later admitted they existed. 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. Arkin continued, “People who have never heard of the Uyghurs are now hearing about them, and 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 it a point to skip the opening ceremonies.
“The presence of politicians at the inauguration of the Olympics seems inappropriate,” Tusk said at the time. “I do not intend to take part.”
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.) Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) resisted calls for full boycott from Republicans.
“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. “There are many young people who spent decades training and getting ready to compete in the Olympics. And I don’t think it’s fair to make them the victims.”