A Dose of Opinion

To Boycott or Not to Boycott: 2022 Winter Olympics in China

June 24, 2021

For years, China has been terrorizing Uighur Muslims by forcing them into internment camps, subjecting them to various human rights abuses, such as rape, torture, and forced reeducation, among other monstrosities. Countries like the United States condemn such actions but are presented with a dilemma as the 2022 Winter Olympics are hosted in Beijing. Does the US deprive American athletes the opportunity to participate in a prestigious competition that is the destination of blood, sweat, and tears, or does the US encourage nationalism by keeping their athletes in the Olympics, despite the unacceptable acts of religious discrimination in China?

To answer this question, one could start with the data of the general consensus from American citizens. According to Pew Research polling, Democrats and Republicans “are just as likely to say that China’s policies on human rights are a very serious problem for the United States”. However, the question about a US boycott of the Beijing Olympics is not as clear-cut: “(49 percent) favor an Olympic boycott, while nearly as many (46 percent) are opposed”. This situation is undeniably complex with many facets required for the United States to make an informed decision about boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics, such as past precedent.

In 1936, the Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany during the time period in which the Nazis took control of the German government, with dictator Adolf Hitler at the helm. Similar to what is happening now, American government officials had great discussion deciding whether to send athletes to Nazi Germany, obviously known for its outspoken persecution of Jewish people. Avery Brundage, who was the president of the American Olympic Committee in 1933 argued, “Politics ha[s] no place in sport... [, as] American athletes should not be involved in the present ‘Jew-Nazi altercation’”. However, Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, favored a boycott on the grounds that “Germany had broken Olympic rules forbidding discrimination based on race and religion”. President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the ultimate decision to continue the Olympic tradition, continuing a 40-year tradition. Even though Germany won the contest with the most medals (89), the United States came in second place (56), with Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the Olympics. Embarrassing Hitler to a degree, Jesse Owens debunked Hitler’s ideas of white supremacy, as Owens was a black man excelling as a track star in the Berlin Olympics. Considering the status and power of Hitler in Nazi Germany, a black man embarrassing an entire regime conveys a powerful message that can only be achieved by American representation in the Olympics, regardless of external circumstances within the host country.

Participating in the Olympics, broadcasted to millions around the world, creates a more impactful message compared to not participating, as a country’s absence can be easily overlooked, especially for international viewers who are completely unaware of China’s internment camp. The United States should instead consider “a partial boycott, keeping officials and corporations away while sending athletes and fortifying them to speak up... express[ing] disapproval while seizing a rare opportunity to highlight Xi Jinping’s brutality around the world.” If Americans boycott the Olympics, not only will China have more opportunities to win medals, but Americans will miss out on the potential leverage to push for change in China, “mak[ing] President Xi fear every day how we might use [leverage]”.

Another perspective from Mitt Romney, current senator and former CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the Olympics in 2002, understands the value of the Olympics competition to participants who have spent most of their lives preparing tirelessly to maintain peak body performance and ability for each of their respective competitions: “It would be unfair to ask a few hundred young American athletes to shoulder the burden of our disapproval.” In addition, the Olympics are a platform for athletes to exhibit core values, like endurance, sportsmanship, and teamwork, which teach and inspire the younger generations. As a result, an Olympic boycott is counterproductive: in the Moscow Olympics of 1980 which America boycotted, “the result was more medals for Russians and dashed dreams for American athletes. No one seriously believes it improved Soviet behavior.

Romney instead encourages us to boycott the Olympics through diplomatic and economic relations. For instance, ordinary American spectators of the Olympics “should stay at home, preventing [Americans] from contributing to the enormous revenues the Chinese Community Party will raise from hotels, meals, and tickets.” We could also choose to send “Chinese dissidents, religious leaders, and ethnic minorities to represent the United States” to send a sense of fear to Xi Jinping by sending the people most qualified to express great disapproval of China's actions. This boycott does not have to be completed by the United States alone: we can recruit other countries to do the same in order to express disapproval towards the repressive actions towards the Uighur Muslims.

Even though the United States are hesitant to officially make a decision about the status of the Olympic boycott, Great Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, firmly “do[es] not believe that boycotting the Olympic Winter Games is the right solution and feel[s] that athletes who have trained all their lives for this moment should be able to go and compete and represent their country,” similar to Romney viewpoint. Great Britain is one of the countries leading international action to make China accountable, but Johnson still decided against boycotting the 2022 Winter Olympics, as it “would only serve to punish the athletes who have worked so hard to qualify and compete at Beijing 2022.” Not everyone agreed with Johnson’s decision, such as Sir Ed Davey, but in his letters, he advises Johnson to not force the athletes “to be used as propaganda for the Chinese Communist Party... [, and] they should not be gagged from speaking out against the Chinese regime.

Should the United States boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics? Disallowing Olympic athletes to participate in a competition that takes years to prepare for is unfair to the athletes and is also unlikely to evoke change from the Chinese Communist Party regarding the treatment of Uighur Muslims. The United States should instead consider suggestions from government leaders such as Mitt Romney and Boris Johnson: boycott the Olympics through diplomatic and economic means, and don’t force athletes to shoulder the disapproval of an entire country . After all, our athletes look to compete and bring glory to the United States, not fight for equality.