The US announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, China. The boycott is cited as being due to the human rights violations committed by the Chinese government, the White House said on Monday. The diplomatic boycott means that the high level delegation from the US will not attend, but athletes are still allowed to attend, and have the government’s support.
The only other time in recorded history of the US boycotting the games was the 1980 Summer Olympic Games held in Moscow. The boycott was over the Soviet Union military presence in Afghanistan, and it involved 80 countries in the boycott, the largest in the game’s history. The results of the boycott were as follows: nothing.
It served no purpose in impacting the global politics of the time—we were still involved in a 41-year-conflict with Afghanistan that only ended this past summer in defeat—and it robbed the athletes of some once-in-a-lifetime chances at representing the US on the global stage, with only an almost apology offered for it.
The notion of boycotting the games and the implications behind it are huge, but the reasons for doing so don’t match the grandness of the action. The US is wanting to recognize the atrocities done by the Chinese government (i.e. forced labor and internment camps/ethnic cleansing of the Uyghur people and other Turkic Muslims; a fancy way of saying genocide).
The way the US has gone about holding the Chinese government accountable resembles our government shaking a finger at them—and boycotting the Olympics certainly isn’t going to hold them accountable either.
Instead, it sends the opposite message to the world: the US is unable to deal with conflict diplomatically. We only show just how willing we are to make political statements at the expense of the athletes. The Olympic games are supposed to be a celebration of the world coming together and putting their differences and disagreements aside for friendly competition. In the instance of a boycott, the athletes are offered as a political tool for the sake of making a “strong message” that makes no real progress.
Even if the boycott is on the basis of not associating ourselves with the Chinese government’s actions, there are still many better and more effective ways of achieving this. Most notable would be limiting trade done with the country. This would at least give a direct consequence of limiting funding the Chinese government receives to use for their actions of perpetuating violence against the Ugyhur people. It would also let us not be complicit in their actions, limiting or completely eradicating any money we pour into their economy, or be on the receiving end of products that are the result of forced labor, in Xinjiang, or from across China.
The violations of human rights committed by the Chinese government are important to acknowledge and to not be complicit in, but if the US was actually concerned about the treatment of the people of the Xinjiang region, the US government should and ought to make more impactful boycotts that eat away of the stability of the Chinese government, not an event that is supposed to bring solidarity across the world for two weeks.
At the end of the day, China is still going to enact the same human rights violations because nothing is stopping them. No meaningful action is taking place against them—just “strong messages” of it. This boycott, while different from Moscow, still has the same implications: we are willing to punish the athletes by making them political pawns.
Allowing them to compete defeats a boycott to begin with, but withholding them from participating doesn’t achieve anything except punishing the athletes. It doesn’t send a “strong message” that we as a country will not tolerate atrocities against man; it just says we are willing to dance around the situation instead of taking meaningful action.