Critics Facing Uphill Battle in Efforts to Organize Olympics Boycott

A growing number of voices are calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. While discussion among Western countries about a boycott has circulated for months, voices in favor of a boycott have grown stronger in light of growing evidence of gross human rights violations in China, including the recent U.S. designation of ongoing atrocities in Xinjiang as genocide. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima, Rick Maese, and John Hudson reported on the ongoing U.S. debate about an Olympics boycott:

Two weeks into its term, the Biden administration is far from settling on a course of action regarding the Olympics, but mid-level diplomats have begun private discussions with key Western allies about how to handle the Games given the genocide declaration, said a foreign diplomat familiar with the matter. The issue could become an early flash point for the administration’s emerging China policy and highlight the challenge President Biden faces in persuading allies to join in a strong condemnation of Beijing’s human rights abuses.

[…] “If you’re going to accuse a government of genocide, you can’t then have an Olympics in that country as if it’s a normal place,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration. “There has to be some implication. Some consequence.”

[…] In late January, mid-level State Department officials reached out to at least one European ally to discuss how they might approach the 2022 Olympics given the Biden administration’s view that China was committing genocide, said two Western diplomats, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity. [Source]

U.S. officials have been publicly circumspect when asked about their position on the boycott. Earlier this month, the White House told reporters that it did not have any plans to boycott the games or call for its relocation to another country. This week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken dodged the question in an extensive interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly:

[Kelly:] And just to sharpen the question, though, on Xinjiang, you’ll know that human rights groups are pushing for a boycott, for example, of the 2022 Winter Olympics. I know that’s not your call, but should the U.S. participate in an Olympic Games being hosted by a government if you believe they’re engaging in genocide?

[Blinken:] First and foremost, I think the things that we can and should be doing. For example, to make sure that any products or technologies that we make are not being used to repress people, including in Xinjiang. Similarly, we ought to be able to make sure that we’re not importing things that are made with forced labor, including in Xinjiang. Those are all things that we can take action on. And we’ll look at any of these other issues as they as they come up. But we have to be able to do multiple things at the same time. [Source]

In Canada, the leader of the opposition Conservative party joined 20 MPs in urging for the relocation of the Olympics. The Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase reported that the representatives, including politicians from all major federal parties, cited China’s perpetuation of genocide against the Uyghurs in their open letter calling for the move:

To send Canadian athletes to Beijing “would amount to taking part in a sinister, self-aggrandizing spectacle staged for the benefit of a regime that is perpetrating the worst possible crimes against humanity against its own people,” state the signatories, which also include advocacy organizations, human rights groups and members of Quebec’s National Assembly.

“We want to ensure that the medals they win in 2022 are not tainted by what will no doubt go down in history, like the 1936 Berlin Games, as The Games of Shame,” the letter says, referring to the Summer Games held in Nazi Germany, which Canadian athletes attended.

[…] Other signatories include Toronto-area Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Conservative MP Kelly Block from Saskatchewan, and New Democrat MP Jenny Kwan and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May from British Columbia. A number of Quebec provincial politicians, including former NHL hockey player Enrico Ciccone, now a Liberal Member of the National Assembly, have also signed, as have the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project and Olympic gold medalist Jean-Luc Brassard. [Source]

Chinese authorities have fired back forcefully against critics calling for the boycott. Recently, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of state-affiliated tabloid Global Times, claimed that “China will seriously sanction any country that follows such a call.” Beijing sees the Olympics as critical to its soft power, likely hoping to recreate the domestic patriotic fervor and public relations victory of the 2008 Olympics. Reuters reported on comments from one analyst who argued that Beijing’s successful execution of the games would ultimately win over audiences, overshadowing their political or ideological qualms with Beijing:

Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing think-tank, said demonstrating control over the virus while providing global entertainment would help other countries see past ideological differences and burnish China’s image.

“People will see it doesn’t matter. Black cat, white cat, as long as it catches mice,” said Wang, using a phrase attributed to Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese leader who guided China’s transformation into an economic powerhouse. [Source]

The International Olympic Committee has also fiercely resisted calls for a boycott. The BBC’s Dan Roan and Alex Capstick reported on comments from Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the IOC, who aggressively dismissed the idea:

“The Games are not Chinese Games, the Games are the IOC Games,” [Pound] told the BBC. “The decision on hosting is not made with a view to signalling approval of a government policy.”

[…] When asked whether the event should have been awarded to China – which also staged the 2008 Summer Games – Pound said, “Where would you celebrate the Olympic Games if you take that kind of attitude?”

[…] “When people sit down and think what it means…they will look and say ‘it’s not going to be effective’, we know that from the [1980 and 1984] boycotts” Pound said.

“It does not change the conduct, so why would we sacrifice our athletes and their dreams in a gesture that we know will have no impact whatsoever?” [Source]

Axios’ Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Kendall Baker reported that the IOC had all but stonewalled critics calling for a boycott of the games:

What’s happening: “The International Olympic Committee won’t speak to you if you don’t want the games to happen. If you’re trying to boycott the games, broadcasters won’t speak to you, athletes won’t speak to you, sponsors won’t speak to you,” said Pete Irwin, a program officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

[…] The IOC itself is also facing ire. Mandie McKeown, executive director of the International Tibet Network, which is also advocating for a diplomatic boycott, told Axios she is “hugely disappointed” with the IOC for refusing to address China’s massive human rights violations.

In a July 2015 letter addressed to the International Tibet Network in response to the group’s concerns, the IOC communications director wrote that “with regards to Beijing 2022, assurances were provided” regarding human rights, labor rights and the right to demonstrate.

McKeown said she has repeatedly asked the IOC to provide evidence that such assurances were made and what those assurances exactly were. The IOC never provided this information, McKeown said. [Source]

In 2017, the IOC announced that it would include human rights, anti-corruption, and sustainable development provisions in future contracts with Olympic host cities. But those rules will only come into force beginning with the 2024 summer games in Paris, and it is unclear how they would be enforced, or what punishments would exist for hosts that break them. Ultimately, creating any serious momentum towards a national boycott of the Olympics is simply harder to do now than ever before. CNN’s Ben Westcott interviewed one Olympics expert who said that a broad consensus among governments found that national boycotts would do nothing except harm the athletes involved:

But Susan Brownell, an Olympics expert and professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St Louis, said that from the Winter Olympics in Albertville in 1992 onwards there had been no national boycotts.

“A broad consensus opposing boycotts emerged among national governments worldwide because of the feeling that they accomplish nothing and only harm the athletes,” she said.

[…] Brownell said that she believed the worst damage to the Olympics’ reputation didn’t come from an association with China or human rights issues. “The damage seems to have come from the perception of excess cost to the taxpayer and corruption in the IOC,” she said. [Source]


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