The Olympic flame arrived in Beijing recently as critics intensified calls for a boycott of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games, scheduled for Feb. 4, 2022.
Critics have alleged that Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has control over virtually all aspects of Chinese society and that human rights in China have deteriorated since 2008, pointing out that China’s oppression of political critics, minority groups such as Tibetan Buddhists and Muslim Uyghurs and a crackdown in Hong Kong should prompt athletes and politicians to shun the games.
U.S. President Joe Biden told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during their recent meeting in Washington that a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games was “something we are considering.” There is no doubt if that happens, Canada will have to follow suit.
Trudeau hasn’t said whether Canada would also consider a diplomatic boycott of the Games. “We’ve been engaged with like-minded partners around the world over the past many months on this issue,” he said. “We continue to have those discussions and, as Games approach, I’m sure there will be more information as to the exact posture Canada and indeed the world will take towards this issue.”
A diplomatic boycott means that a country refuses to send a political contingent to the Winter Games, but it would allow its athletes to participate. Most participating countries feel that their athletes have devoted several years to training which shouldn’t be wasted and hence an acceptable compromise would be that they should send no official delegation to the opening ceremony in Beijing.
Canadian House of Commons, the former Trump administration and activists have previously accused China of genocide. Supporters of a diplomatic boycott believe that a diplomatic boycott would not only send a message to China but also to the IOC about how they select host nations.
The Olympic movement is no stranger to boycotts as several boycotts have happened over several years. The first boycott occurred at the 1956 Summer Olympics and the most recent was at the 1988 Summer Olympics. In 1972, Rhodesia, (now called Zimbabwe), had its invitation to the Summer Olympics withdrawn following protests by African countries, who claimed that the country was an illegal regime since Prime Minister Ian Smith had declared unilateral independence that allowed the country’s white minority to dominate the government.
South Africa was not invited to the 1964 games, and its invitation to the 1968 games was withdrawn. South Africa was not allowed to participate in the Olympics until the 1992 Summer Olympics due to its racist apartheid policies.
It would be an understatement to believe that a full boycott would have any impact on the Chinese, but there is no doubt that it will hurt our own athletes who have been training strenuously for the games, which are aimed at building a better, more peaceful world through sports. Olympic Games have been marred by political drama, resulting in cancellations, bans and boycotts due to apartheid, racism, World Wars, invasions, colonialism, and numerous other political and social issues.
Although the Olympics have provided an attractive target for political expression, it provides an excellent opportunity of viewing athletes compete, inspiring a positive impact on the citizens of the athletes’ home country and boosting their national pride. Athletes are worshipped as heroes, inspiring pride, promoting patriotism and goodwill. Hence, it is abundantly clear that boycotting the games would generate limited political success, especially when one compares the potentially positive outcome that could result from participating.
Beijing considers advocating Olympic boycotts as “meddling” in its “internal affairs” and it’s unlikely China would change its policies to satisfy its critics. It should also not be forgotten that a boycott of the Beijing Games could force China to boycott the 2024 Paris Summer Games and the 2026 Milan Winter games as a retaliatory move.
Some of the same athletes who couldn’t compete in Moscow are now part of Olympic institutions and have spoken about the impact of the missed opportunity of those games. Their verdict according to Anita L. DeFrantz, a member of the IOC executive board and two-time US Olympic athlete: “Olympic Games boycotts…have always failed and always will fail to be an effective strategy for addressing political, social, or military problems.”
Mansoor Ladha is a Calgary-based writer and author of Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing East Africa for the West and A Portrait in Pluralism: Aga Khan’s Shia Ismaili Muslims.