China has jailed nearly every major voice in Hong Kong opposing its efforts to crush local democratic rule in the territory. It has stepped up its harsh treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province, leading to claims of genocide. And yet China is scheduled to host the 2022 Winter Olympics early next year. Around the world, many countries are debating whether to send a signal about these official abuses by not sending their athletes to Beijing. A group of more than 180 activist groups is calling for some kind of boycott.
Some cite the decision in 1936 by Western democracies not to boycott the Summer Olympics held in Berlin that year. Instead of acting as a moderating influence on then-Nazi Germany, those games served as a propaganda triumph for Adolf Hitler’s regime.
An Olympics boycott is not new. In 1976 a number of African countries boycotted the games, protesting the inclusion of then-apartheid South Africa. In 1980 the United States, Canada, Japan, and West Germany boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics to protest the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. In retaliation the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
For more than a century the modern games have served as an opportunity for peaceful contact and greater understanding among nations. Those who would suffer most directly from a boycott are the athletes, who often train for years for their moment in a premier competition. To them, the innate nationalism in the games should not get in the way of the sport itself.
The 2008 Summer Olympics, the first games held in Beijing, were seen by the West as an opportunity to moderate the behavior of China’s ruling Communist Party. Since 2012, however, party leader Xi Jinping has reversed the few political freedoms enjoyed by the Chinese.
Fearing a boycott for next year’s games, China has made it clear it will retaliate against any country that takes such action. As the world’s No. 2 economic power, it has already shown it will punish countries that challenge its policies. China has reduced exports from Australia after that country called for an international investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
Given a boycott’s possible damage to Olympic athletes and to the peaceful purposes of the event, could something short of a full boycott achieve the same purpose of expressing disapproval of China’s abysmal abuse of millions of its citizens?
Could, for example, athletes participate while delegations of government officials and sponsors stay away? Might athletes find ways during the games to distance themselves from China’s propaganda or point out the benefits of a free society? They could, for example, boycott the opening ceremonies or use press conferences and social media to speak up. Their integrity as successful athletes gives them far more credibility than a regime that punishes people for their views, religion, or ethnicity. Clever protest actions at the games would be reported in most countries and possibly slip past government censors inside China.
With the world’s best athletes in Beijing next year, the dazzling spotlight on the games can also shine into China’s dark corners, perhaps helping to achieve the noble aims of the Olympics of building a peaceful world and creating respect for universal ethical principles.