Winter Olympics boycotts: empty and evasive, or potent and powerful?


The diplomatic boycotts of the 2022 Beijing Winter announced by a small group of mostly English-speaking western nations, following the lead of the United States, have been described by French President Emmanuel Macron as “symbolic and insignificant”.

To label it as such is to underestimate the appearance of wilful ignorance of Chinese atrocities that sending diplomats to the games presents. However, it also highlights the half-heartedness of the measures taken by the small cohort of boycotting states, and by the IOC itself.

Though refusing to send diplomats evades the issue of condoning China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or its aggression towards Taiwan, it provides little in the way of a concrete challenge to such behaviour.

Despite the apolitical rhetoric of the IOC, throughout history the Olympic Games have been inseparable from politics – the Games are as much a diplomatic summit as they are a sporting spectacle. That diplomacy, though, is unconventional. It is, at least visually, conducted more by the athletes than by the groups of government officials that the UK, amongst others, have this year decided to keep at home. Athletes, not dignitaries, hold the political power at the Olympic Games.

One needs only look to what is perhaps the most famous Games in history: those held in Berlin in 1936. It was here that African American athlete Jesse Owens so poignantly crushed the Nazi racial myth of Aryan superiority by taking home four gold medals in front of a watching Adolf Hitler. What was intended to be the German peoples’ time to shine on the world stage became a visible rejection of the Nazi Party’s vehement racism in their own backyard.

Athletes, not dignitaries, hold the political power at the Olympic Games

Mexico 1968 is another Games written into the history books for its political resonance. The image of African American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium with their fists raised in the black power salute is one that retains its potency to this day. They were two athletes using their visibility as a platform to promote a political – and humanitarian – cause that they both believed in.

Their actions highlighted the potential that the hold as explicit political theatre. Both were banned by the IOC for their protest. It is in the IOC’s pretence of apoliticism that the problem lies.

The IOC, as the governing body of the Olympic Games, is keen to stress the apparent neutrality of the Games as a sporting event. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter explicitly states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

The problem with this ‘neutrality’ is that by taking the political stage away from the athletes, the IOC is leaving it to the host country. Claims made by the IOC that the host country is as subject to these rules as the athletes themselves are farcical.

The Olympic opening ceremony in particular is an opportunity for the host state to put forward a distorted and idealised image of itself to the watching world. The of 2008, also held in Beijing, were described in one Guardian article as leaving no doubt that ‘the new China intends to make its presence felt.’ Why should these Winter prove any less potent?

The least the IOC could do is to provide individual athletes with the same platform to make their voices heard that is being given to the Chinese state

Rather than washing its hands of political responsibility, and hiding behind a veneer of neutrality, it is time that the IOC faced up to reality. The Olympics, and sports in general, are not apolitical. It is not fair to expect athletes who wish to protest to sacrifice a lifetime’s training in boycotting the Games, whilst diplomatic boycotts are unlikely to make a dent in Chinese government policy.

Though it would be logistically impossible to move the location of the Games, the least the IOC could do is to provide individual athletes with the same platform to make their voices heard that is being given to the Chinese state. It needs to recognise the power it has to facilitate political protest and change, and the power that a lack of action has to stifle it.

Therefore, there is little more that independent participant states can do barring a full sporting boycott, a measure Boris Johnson has already described as insensible in the eyes of the Government. Indeed, the absence of athletes hailing from only a few countries would be unlikely to produce much of a political impact.

The 2022 Winter will be a stage that will draw the whole world’s gaze. The actors upon this stage are the Olympians themselves – it is they who have the power to make a visible statement, and it is the IOC who have the power to let them make it.

Image: Jude Freeman via Creative Commons

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