There is now a consensus in the human rights community, and one growing among politicians, in favor of some form of boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted by China—a regime committing ongoing mass atrocities and serious human rights abuses, particularly in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, while currently cozying up to Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. In addition to the possibility of a full boycott, other alternatives include a diplomatic boycott, relocation of the Games, athlete-led protests, and the withdrawal of corporate sponsors. Others have proposed longer-term reforms that would prevent any authoritarian regime from hosting the Games in the future, such as Ambassador David Scheffer’s proposal to establish neutral, permanent locations for the Olympic Games through an international treaty.
History has shown the dangers of allowing repressive regimes to gain legitimacy by hosting the Olympics. Given these dangers, the international community and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have short-term and long-term avenues to hold China accountable and preserve the legitimacy of the Olympics in the future.
Legitimizing Repressive Regimes Through the Olympics
Calls to boycott Olympics hosted by genocidal regimes are not new. In the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, many activists, officials, and religious leaders, including the president of the Amateur Athletic Union, advocated for a boycott due to the rise of Nazism in Germany and the growing persecution of Jewish Germans, political dissidents, and others.
The IOC had selected Berlin in 1931 to host the Games. In 1933, Adolf Hitler rose to power and began his tyrannical fascist campaign against Jews and other “non-Aryans.” The regime went on to exploit the Olympics for propaganda purposes, while instituting strict “Aryans only” policies at home. It made a mockery of the Olympic Charter’s very foundation of bringing together all peoples of the world as equals. The boycott efforts bore little fruit, with some athletes attending the protest alternative Popular Olympiad in Barcelona, which was derailed by the start of the Spanish Civil War, or the World Labor Athletic Carnival in New York City, which coincided with only the final two days of the Olympic Games.
The Berlin Olympics proved to be a stunning propaganda success for the Nazis, both domestically and internationally. Indeed, the Olympics served as a platform to legitimize the regime before the world and solidify Nazi prestige and power before the German populace, which helped pave the way for the Holocaust.
The Chinese government similarly recognizes the political significance that sports can play for the regime. Several academics note that China uses sports to shape its international perception, counter negative stereotypes, and depict itself as a country that is “cooperative, peace-loving, developing and ready to play a constructive role in international politics.” Looking at recent Chinese history, it is evident that sports and the Olympics specifically have played substantial roles in China’s increased presence on the global stage and relationship with other countries.
The 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, for example, was the first international sports competition after the Cultural Revolution to which China sent a delegation. At the tournament, a series of informal meetings between Chinese and American athletes led to an invitation for the American team to visit China. This “ping-pong diplomacy” broke the ice between the two countries, acting as a key turning point in Sino-American rapprochement.
More recently, the 2008 Beijing Olympics served as a major political victory for China. When the IOC selected China as the host, it signaled international acceptance of the former global pariah state. Furthermore, the 2008 Games set the record as the most watched of all time, with more than 4.7 billion television viewers worldwide, showcasing China’s renewed grandeur. As for the domestic impact, the torch relay included stops in every region, including Tibet and Xinjiang, to portray the Chinese state as unified and foster Chinese nationalism. Accordingly, the 2008 Games aided the Chinese government in validating its authority and political ideology to the Chinese populace.
In the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics, some believed that hosting the Games would force China to reverse course on its human rights abuses. But since the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese Communist Party has increasingly demonstrated its wanton disregard for human rights, culminating in what experts are now concluding is an ongoing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Moreover, the Beijing Olympics represented a stark break in a fairly consistent previous line of democratic host countries, thereby normalizing the acceptance of authoritarian hosts—at the expense of human rights—with Russia hosting the Winter Olympics merely six years later.
Recommendations for the International Olympic Committee
In response to concerns over China hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, the IOC has repeatedly emphasized the importance of political neutrality in sports and remaining “neutral on all global political issues.” Such a stance is grounded in the Olympic Charter’s provision that the IOC “maintain and promote its political neutrality and … preserve the autonomy of sport.”
And yet, the self-declared vision of the IOC is “building a better world through sport.” It should be obvious that allowing a regime currently perpetrating a genocide—the crime of crimes—to use the Olympics as a tool to strengthen its image both domestically and internationally is antithetical to that goal. In weighing the values of neutrality and a better world, the IOC must face the reality that if they do not draw the line at genocide, they cannot draw it anywhere. To retain any legitimacy, the IOC must therefore work to relocate the 2022 Games.
While the IOC’s Host City Contract for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, for the first time, includes binding requirements related to nondiscrimination, human rights protections and corruption, these requirements only apply to “activities related to the organisation of the Games.” Even this extremely limited provision will give human-rights-abusing host regimes carte blanche to freely commit atrocities and engage in discrimination or corruption outside the narrow scope of organizing the games. Thus, the IOC continues to send the message to host regimes that the world will look the other way so long as mass atrocities or serious human rights abuses do not affect the narrow preparation and operation of the Games, emboldening existing cultures of impunity.
In light of these intractable issues affecting the current system of alternating locations, we support Ambassador Scheffer’s proposal for an international treaty that would enshrine the more sustainable option of hosting the Summer and Winter games in permanent, neutral locations with long and steady histories of respect for human rights. This would ensure that the Olympic Games truly are geared towards “building a better world through sport.”
Fortunately, the financial incentives are aligned with this proposal as well. Every single Olympics since 1960 has been over budget, at an average of 172 percent over projected costs. As hosting the Olympics becomes increasingly more expensive, many potential democratic host countries are ultimately declining for purely financial reasons. The reported expenditures of around $40 billion for the Beijing 2008 Games and $50 billion for the Sochi 2014 Games were likely made possible by the rampant corruption that characterizes such regimes. Four cities that bid for the 2022 Olympics had to pull out of the race due to financial concerns, leaving the IOC with only Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, a country with an extremely poor human rights record as well.
Therefore, from a financial and a moral standpoint, it is in the interests of the IOC and international community that the Olympic Games are moved to a permanent location, or locations, where human rights will be consistently respected. If the Games are held in permanent locations, the costs would be sustainably shared by all nations, with appropriate use of corporate sponsorship, and the facilities would be productively used year-round for training purposes. The IOC can then focus on governance alone.
Recommendations for Participant States
Unfortunately, there has thus far been little support for a full boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics from participant states and local Olympic committees. By contrast, the push for a diplomatic boycott of the Games, wherein world leaders and officials refuse to attend but athletes still compete, is gaining traction.
On July 8, 2021, the European Parliament approved a non-binding resolution that calls for a diplomatic boycott of the Games. The U.K. House of Commons passed a similar motion on July 15, 2021. The U.S. Senate also passed a bill in June supporting a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, a vote that followed a report in April from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommending such a boycott. We therefore urge countries, at the very least, to participate in a global diplomatic boycott by refusing to send officials to the Games.
Additional Recommendations for Athletes and Sponsors
If the Beijing Games do take place with athlete delegations attending, corporate sponsors and athletes can still seek to hold China accountable. Commercial sponsors should withdraw financial support for the Games based on China’s genocide against the Uyghurs and other serious human rights abuses. Athletes can also engage in small, powerful acts of symbolic protest, as the Olympics represent an unparalleled advocacy platform. As Nick Kristof has suggested, athletes can wear shirts that read “Save Xinjiang,” “End the Genocide,” or—for Canadian athletes specifically—“Free the Two Michaels” (two Canadians held hostage by China as a result of the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada on the United States’ request over charges of bank and wire fraud). This would not be unprecedented. During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, President Barack Obama sent American LBGTQ+ athletes to represent the U.S. delegation as an intentional signal to Russia, which had recently passed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation.
The organizing of a protest alternative Olympics, as was attempted in 1936, should remain on the table, though is less feasible than the recommendations outlined here. The massive international campaigning and logistics required of a significant alternative Olympics would be better focused on these more attainable initiatives to boycott, relocate, and/or protest at the Olympics.
In light of the Uyghur genocide and the Chinese government’s repression and persecution in Tibet and Hong Kong, it is imperative that the IOC and international community not allow the 2022 Beijing Olympics to go on as planned. Doing so would provide cover for the Chinese regime to cleanse its international image, thereby legitimizing and enabling its brutal policies. Moreover, it would also strengthen the authority and image of the regime domestically. The world allowed this outcome to occur at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the results of which we are all aware.
The Chinese government recognizes the political value of sports and the propaganda benefits of hosting the Olympics. They should not be permitted to abuse the Games for their own cynical purposes. It is our hope that our policy recommendations will be implemented, so that the Olympics can truly embody the worthy goal of “building a better world through sport.”
In the words of Elie Wiesel, “there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”