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Boycotting the Olympics: Five Questions about the US’s Diplomatic Boycott of the Winter Games in Beijing

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On December 6, 2021, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, scheduled for February 4-20. The US has accused China’s government of genocide and crimes against humanity, citing evidence from the Xinjiang province, where millions of Uyghurs have been subject to internment, “re-education,” forced labor, and sterilization. In the days following the US’s announcement, Britain, Canada, and Australia joined the boycott as well.

The move marks the first significant Olympic boycott of any kind since 1984, when the Soviet Union refused to attend the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and the first US boycott since the 1980 Summer Olympics, when US president Jimmy Carter led a full boycott against the games held in Moscow. As the countdown to the 2022 Games continues, here are five things to know about the diplomatic boycott, according to SIS professor Robert Kelley.

What exactly is a “diplomatic boycott”?
According to the White House, no official representatives from the US government will attend the Beijing Games. However, this does not amount to a full boycott in which the athletes and coaches do not participate, so the full squads of all boycotting nations, in this instance, still plan to be in Beijing. The reason for doing it this way is to achieve the poignancy of a boycott without punishing the actual participants. It seeks to offset this latest attempt by China to showcase itself on the global stage and enhance its soft power with a counternarrative of shame.
Do Olympic boycotts work?
As expressions of grievance, they can be pretty powerful, if also sobering, exploitations of the Olympic movement, whose guiding principles denounce politicization of the Games. That spirit of idealism has not stopped countries from using Olympic boycotts to heighten the visibility of raging conflicts or cast judgment on the egregious behavior of others, as the United States and many others did in protest of the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Meanwhile, one of the sad legacies of the infamous “Nazi Games” of 1936 in Berlin is why anyone didn’t boycott those. In any respect, the power of boycotts is measured by its strength in numbers, and numbers are driven to a large extent by a compelling cause.
Then why do it?
As this particular boycott is diplomatic in nature, it may be better to conceive of this as a framing contest—one’s way of interpreting the meaning of an event in sharp contrast to the way of one’s adversary. This places the action more appropriately within high politics and the conduct of diplomats. Nothing would validate the boycotting parties more than the rebranding of the Beijing Winter Olympics as the “Genocide Games.” At the same time, there are no illusions that China will change its approaches to Taiwan or the Uyghurs as a result.
How has China responded?
For its part, Beijing has said “no one cares” about the boycott and maintains the protesting politicians weren’t invited anyway. It’s a defiant message and one that plays particularly well at home—always a consideration when outsiders try to read into China’s political maneuvers. In one sense, this merely reinforces China’s self-positioning as a rival to the West, and dissention among the West about the boycott is a sign that China is prevailing over the argument. Beyond China, the tepid response emboldens the contention that this is all a feeble form of repudiation—all symbolic and no substance.
So why does China pay it any attention?
Make no mistake, this is not the story China wants to talk about in the buildup to February. China would not have lobbied this hard for successive Games if appearances didn’t matter. Being the face-conscious culture that it is, China harbors an unrelenting desire to be seen as a palatable alternative, if not superior to, the Western order. One can easily see China’s ambitions and desired optics wrapped into its Olympic achievements as their preferred kind of direct-to-consumer marketing.