China is set to host the Winter Olympics, beginning on February 3, 2021. The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, as well as Denmark, Estonia, and Lithuania announced a diplomatic boycott of the games. These countries will not send government officials to the games, though their athletes may still compete. China responded furiously to the boycott; saying these nations would “pay the price for their mistaken acts.” The boycott and larger geopolitical struggle between the U.S. and China resemble the power politics staged during the Cold War. This article will discuss the reasoning for the diplomatic boycott, the history of Olympic boycotts, and what this boycott means for international relations. 

Why are the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics? 

Calls for a boycott of the Bejing Winter Olympics began to gain momentum during November 2021, due to the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, following her allegation of being sexually assaulted by a top Chinese official. 

In mid-November President Biden and President Xi engaged in diplomatic talks via video conference. U.S. officials described the talks as respectful and open.

On December 6, 2021, the Biden administration said it would not send officials to the games due to “genocide and crimes against humanity.These allegations are in reference to the mass detentions, concentration camps, and sterilizations occurring in the Xinjiang region of China against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. 

Australia was the first nation to join the United States in boycotting the games. Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison cited human rights abuses, as well as China’s criticism of Australia’s growing defense efforts and acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister noted his nation’s decision to not send diplomats stemmed from the rocky relationship with China over fundamental disagreements about Taiwan’s sovereignty.  The United Kingdom and Canada quickly announced they would also boycott the games, both referencing human rights violations in their announcements. Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said China should not be surprised by this decision, as their country has “been very clear over the past many years of [its] deep concerns around human rights violations.” The other nations’ leaders made similar comments, suggesting this boycott should not be a surprise to China, and they would be open to discussing their concerns with the Chinese government. 

The history of Olympic boycotts: what have they meant for international relations in the past?

The Beijing 2022 Olympics will not be the first time the global sporting competition has been the stage for geopolitical demonstrations. It will be the first time a nation has staged an Olympic boycott since the end of the Cold War, providing more fodder for those who draw parallels between the current U.S.-China rivalry and the Cold War.

The first time nations boycotted the Olympic games was in 1956. China chose to boycott the Melbourne Olympics that year because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited Taiwan to participate. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland also sat out of the Melbourne games as a demonstration of solidarity with Hungary, which had just been invaded by the Soviet Union. Additionally, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq boycotted the 1956 games due to France, the U.K., and Israel invading Egypt to gain control of the Suez Canal. Weeks before the 1976 Montreal Olympic games, 28 African nations announced a boycott in protest of the IOC allowing the New Zealand rugby team to compete, following the team’s trip to apartheid South Africa. In 1980 the U.S. initiated a boycott of the Russian Winter Games, and four years later Soviet allied nations boycotted the summer games in Los Angeles. Boycotting the Olympics was one way for the Cold War powers to attempt to undermine one another on the world stage. 

There were other instances during the Cold War era when the IOC excluded nations for geopolitical reasons. The IOC excluded South Africa from participating for 32 years because of its apartheid regime. Other nations imposed a similar embargo on athletes and teams from South Africa by refusing to host them for competitions. In addition to nations and the IOC using the Olympics as a stage for geopolitics, athletes have used the games to promote political opinions. For example, in 1968, two U.S. track stars raised their fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement from the winner’s podium. 

These demonstrations and boycotts at the Olympics have not been the source of major geopolitical change, but rather offer a snapshot of the geopolitical moment. The Soviet Union did not stop its interference in other countries after the 1956 games or withdraw from Afghanistan after the 1980 boycott; South Africa upheld apartheid for decades despite their exclusion. Many of the previous boycotts were in some way connected to the power politics between the West and the East during the Cold War and did little more than draw attention to the tensions between the two sides. Even when the global community is unified in their opposition to a certain nation or policy, as in the case of South Africa’s apartheid regime, little change actually comes about from Olympic boycotts. 

What this boycott could mean for the U.S. and China relations: 

Tensions between the United States and China are high, due to allegations of human rights abuses by China, and economic, technological, and military competition. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinkin described the current U.S. relationship with China as the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century. 

Just as previous boycotts have drawn media attention to geopolitical issues, the 2022 boycott may raise awareness of the alleged human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Province and unite some U.S. allies in countering China’s power. However these games are just one piece in a larger game of geopolitics between the U.S. and China, and many believe Olympic boycotts are ineffective. The potential benefits of raising awareness and solidifying an alliance to be a counterweight to China are amorphous and difficult to measure. 

While the boycott may fail to change China’s treatment of ethnic and religious minorities, or reconsider military presence in the South Pacific, the boycott may generate retaliation. China threatened to take “countermeasures” in response to the boycott. What could this retaliation mean? Retaliation by China could come in many forms. It may push back economically by suspending trade or leveraging its population of 1.4 billion people in a retaliatory boycott of U.S. products and businesses. It may refuse to participate in diplomatic talks on critical issues like climate change. 

The U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing winter games is just one move in the power struggle between the two nations. Shortly after announcing the boycott, the two countries were announcing other ways to challenge one another. On December 9th, 2021 the U.S. hosted 100 world leaders in Washington D.C. for a democracy summit, which China was not invited to join. China responded by releasing a slew of reports and media commentaries promoting Chinese democracy. The diplomatic boycott was just one move in this power struggle, which will undoubtedly continue after these games. China will likely conduct a similar boycott to the summer games scheduled for Los Angeles in 2028

Small steps to combat human rights abuses, like the genocide against the Uyghur Muslims in China should not be ignored just because they do not instantly stop the violations. At the same time, an Olympic boycott will not solve these problems and realistically it is just a way for two nations in a geopolitical power struggle to make jabs at one another. 

Author Biography: Meredith Gusky is a 2L at the George Washington University Law school and Senior Reporter for ILPB. Meredith is interested in issues related to international law, human rights, international criminal law, and social justice. Meredith is on the International Law in Domestic Courts Journal and also participates in the International Refugee Assistance Project at GW Law.