Boycotting Beijing: A Look at the U.S. Diplomatic Boycott of the Winter Olympics

protesters calling for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics

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The Winter Olympics are set to begin next week, but some key diplomats won’t be in Beijing. Here’s everything you need to know about the diplomatic boycott of the Games and how it’s expected to play out:

What’s behind the boycott?

In December, the U.S. announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics in response to the “genocide and crimes against humanity” being committed against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China. Earlier this year, the U.S. declared that China’s wide-scale repression of the Uyghurs — who have been forced into internment camps and subjected to forced sterilization, among other abuses — amounted to genocide. Lawmakers and activists have urged nations to use the Winter Olympics as a ways to hold China accountable, not only for its actions in Xinjiang but also for its suppression of free speech in Hong Kong and its treatment of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.

Australia, the U.K., Canada, and others have taken a similar stance. These nations won’t be sending their politicians and dignitaries to the Games, but their athletes will still compete.

When have the Olympics been boycotted?

The first major boycott was in 1976 when close to 30 African nations sat the Games out to protest the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision not to ban New Zealand from competition. The New Zealand rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa earlier that year, defying the U.N.’s call for a sports embargo. 

In 1980, more than 60 countries led by the U.S. boycotted the Games in Moscow, because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. (President Jimmy Carter, who ordered the boycott, devastating hundreds of American athletes, later called the move a mistake.) The U.S.S.R. and a dozen other countries then boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Will it be effective?

Some activists say it’s already succeeded in raising awareness of the human rights abuses unfolding in Xinjiang, moving the issue to the top of the global agenda. Others say the coalition of countries participating in the boycott, which doesn’t include U.S. allies like France and Germany, isn’t large enough to make much of a difference.

It may also cause China to retaliate. A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said last month that the U.S. would “pay a price” for its stance. Soon afterward, a state media publication called for China to boycott the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Are athletes speaking out?

Some, like American ice dancer Evan Bates, have. “I have no problems in speaking for the athletes in saying what’s happening there is terrible,” he said in October. 

But recently, China’s Olympics organizing committee warned foreign athletes that they could be punished for speech that goes “against the Olympic spirit.” The International Olympic Committee (IOC) already prohibits athletes from protesting while at the Games, but China’s policy seems even stricter. Human rights advocates have advised athletes not to speak out in support of the Uyghur community in Beijing, because it could put them in danger.

Still unsure whether to watch? Here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

Not tuning into the Winter Olympics this year could be a powerful way to repudiate China’s oppression of the Uyghurs, some argue. It also sends a message to the IOC that it’s failed by allowing China to host the Games, and serves to warn corporations doing business with China — namely, NBCUniversal, which paid $7.7 billion for the broadcasting rights to six Olympics — that there are consequences.

On the other hand, the White House has made clear that America’s Olympians have its “full support” in competing in the Games, and that it didn’t want to penalize all the athletes who have given up “blood, sweat, and tears preparing for these Olympics.” For many of these athletes, the 2022 Winter Olympics may be their one opportunity to compete on the world stage, and witnessing that is one of the best ways to demonstrate support for Team USA and the hundreds of others who’ve spent years training.