By Ryan Gauthier, Assistant Professor of Law, Thompson Rivers University

By December 2021 there was a lot of talk about athletes boycotting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to protest China’s persecution of its Uyghur population. But countries like the United States ultimately decided on a diplomatic boycott instead.

The act of boycotting the Olympics is not as simple as it seems. Governments do not send athletes to the Olympics. National Olympic Committees send athletes. They are supposed to operate independently from their country’s government. If the government wanted to boycott the Beijing Olympics, it would have to persuade its Olympic Committee not to send athletes.

Pulling funding for athletes

A government could try moral suasion or it could simply pull funding to coerce its Olympic Committee to go along. But pulling funding from Olympic athletes, who are already arguably underfunded, is not be a popular decision.

If a government did get involved, athletes could face sanctions from the International Olympic Committee. The IOC has banned India’s National Olympic Committee from the Olympics over political interference. And Italy’s National Olympic Committee recently raised concerns about sanctions in response to a new law reducing its power in Italian sport.

Boycotts are historically ineffective

Even if the Olympic Committees went along with a boycott, it has previously proven to be effective. The two most significant boycotts of the Olympic Games, the American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games and the Soviet-bloc boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, failed to achieve their goals.

The 1980 boycott was in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, but the Soviets remained in Afghanistan until 1989. The 1984 Soviet-led boycott was a response to the 1980 boycott. The 1984 Games, the first to turn a massive profit, saw American athletes winning a record number of medals because of the absence of Soviet and other Communist bloc athletes. A full boycott of Beijing 2022 would look at lot like the 1984 boycott.

A Boycott would help Chinese athletes

China wants to become a winter sports power. If the Games were boycotted by countries that are traditionally strong winter sports performers, it would open the way for more Chinese athletes to win medals.

More medals won by Chinese athletes would benefit the government of China, rather than punish it for its actions against the Uyghur population or the two imprisoned Canadians.

The focus of the debate over human rights and the Olympics needs to be on the International Olympic Committee. The IOC, which holds the rights to the Games, could put pressure on China. But it has shown to be unwilling to do so.

First, there is no provision in the Host City Contract between the International Olympic Committee and the city of Beijing that would enable the IOC to remove the Games based on human rights issues.

Additionally, the IOC would not want to find a new, last-minute host for the 2022 Winter Games after already delaying the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo by a year due to COVID-19. The IOC is committed to the Games going ahead as planned, seen in the refuting of a recent report suggesting that the Tokyo Games will be cancelled.

Sports diplomacy a better route

I would probably be more helpful to use participation at the Beijing Games as a way to raise awareness of human rights issues and a form of sports diplomacy.

We have seen this play out with Qatar’s labour law reforms following intense scrutiny as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Professional sports leagues have also provided an avenue for athletes to raise awareness about Black Lives Matter, an example of positive engagement.

The hurdle to this approach is the Olympic Charter’s Rule 50.2 that states:

“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

This rule has been criticized and the International Olympic Committee’s Athlete’s Commission is putting forward recommendations to reconsider the rule. That is not to say raising awareness, demonstrations, and protests by athletes will solve the problems. But history shows us that athlete protests can have a powerful effect.

What could affect more change? Having more athletes with the bravery of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman. They used the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to protest anti-Black racism.

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