Beijing is set to become the first city to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics. However, it comes amid growing calls to boycott Beijing 2022, with critics dubbing them a “genocide game”.
In less than 100 days, athletes, politicians and human rights activists are among those who want to see the Games canceled or boycotted for human rights reasons. The playbook – outlining how the games will play out – has just been released, but will the games go ahead as planned?
call for boycott
Concerns around the Tokyo Games and COVID have kept people distracted from the 2022 Winter Olympics for the better part of 2021.
But dissatisfaction with the Beijing Games going ahead has recently re-emerged in a prominent form. NBA basketball player and outspoken human rights advocate Ennes Kanter is one of the latest high-profile voices to call for a boycott.
A group of US senators is also calling for a diplomatic boycott that would see world leaders refuse to participate in the Games.
It comes on top of calls for an inter-parliamentary coalition on China – which includes more than 100 lawmakers from 19 countries – that Beijing should be removed from the Games. The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has said it is “unlikely” he will attend.
‘Game of Use’
Concerns about Beijing hosting the Games center around serious human rights abuses. These are long overdue, and were played in China in 2000, losing the hosting rights to Sydney (although they did host the 2008 Summer Games).
As the Coalition of 200 Global Campaign Groups wrote in September:
At least two million Muslims, including Uighurs, Kazakhs and Uzbeks, are lodged in “re-education camps”. […] The situation in occupied Tibet has deteriorated dramatically and in 2021 […] in Hong Kong […] Freedom and democracy are under attack, and youth activists are being cornered and mass imprisoned. In mainland China, Chinese officials routinely banish government critics […] At the same time, Beijing has intensified its decades-old strategy of geopolitical intimidation and intimidation of democratic Taiwan.
Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government is using the games to “hide its abuses and show that the world accepts it”.
Despite the vast level of organization and planning involved, there is a preference not to go ahead with the Olympic Games. The most recent example was the delay of the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Summer Games have been canceled on three occasions because of the war – 1916 (Berlin), 1940 (Tokyo), and 1944 (London), while the Winter Games were canceled twice – 1940 (Sapporo) and 1944 (Cortina) D’Ampezzo).
Under various circumstances, the citizens of Colorado voted to withhold funding for the 1976 Denver Winter Games, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later awarded them to Innsbruck. This followed a public backlash against the ecological and economic costs of running the Games.
Take away games?
The IOC could possibly snatch the Games from Beijing and give it to another city – although it is probably too late to do so realistically (and logistically). Any relocated games would logically have to move to a more recent host city such as Pyeongchang (2018) or Vancouver (2010), as they have the infrastructure and experience. There may also be a chance to postpone the Games till 2023.
But the IOC will do its best not to cancel, move or carry out a widespread boycott of the 2022 Games. It needs to protect its bottom line and reputation. Officially, the IOC has also bothered to keep politics out of the Games. As President Thomas Bach says:
The Olympic Games are not about politics. The International Olympic Committee, as a civil, non-governmental organization, is completely politically neutral at all times.
If it took away the Games, China would likely withdraw from the Olympics – as it did from 1956 to 1984. This will have a huge impact on the Olympic movement, as China has been in the top four at the last seven Summer Games and sixth in the all-time medal tally for the Summer and Winter Games.
A political boycott?
But beyond the IOC, there may still be a significant boycott of the Beijing Games.
The United States hotly debated a boycott in Nazi Germany in the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, while a “counter-Olympics” was planned for Barcelona (this was overtaken by the Spanish Civil War).
Six Olympic boycotts in 1956 (Melbourne), 1964 (Tokyo), 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow), 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1988 (Seoul) saw the Games proceed with little participation. The reasons for these boycotts included war, invasion and apartheid.
Read more: How to protest China’s human rights violations without boycotting the 2022 Olympics
There has been no boycott of the previous Winter Olympics. But the boycott can prove to be too powerful. Winter sports are not as “global” as a summer phenomenon. Most athletes and medalists come from a short list of affluent Western countries such as the United States, Germany, Norway, and Canada. Therefore, if they collectively support the boycott, it could seriously undermine competition and force IOC action.
However, most National Olympic Committees, especially in Western democracies, are independent bodies and can ignore government-led boycotts. This is what happened with the Moscow Games (1980) when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser supported a US-led boycott but the Australian Olympic Committee allowed its athletes to compete.
What about trade boycotts?
Despite heavy lobbying by human rights groups, Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and Toyota are trying to ignore politics.
Major sponsors have yet to make a statement about changing their huge investment (estimated at around US$110 billion) related to the Beijing Games. Meanwhile, a broadcast boycott, which would also be very powerful, also seems unlikely.
As the games go on, athlete activation may surface. Former Canadian Olympian and scholar Bruce Kidd has urged athletes not to boycott the Games and instead be allowed to protest without violating the IOC charter.
It is reasonable to assume that neither China nor the IOC would encourage athlete protests over China’s human rights record.
However, the rules preventing political protests from Olympic athletes were relaxed a little before the Tokyo Games. This means athletes can “express their views” as long as they do not do so during competition or official events and against particular countries.
As we head to the opening ceremony on February 4th, all indications are these games will take place. But Beijing 2022 is well on its way to being one of the most politically charged games of all time.