Global Affairs

Beijing 2022 Olympics: To Boycott or Not to Boycott?

Britain has never called out a genocide whilst it has taken place. Nor has Britain ever boycotted an Olympics. Is now the time?

What has the history of boycotting and the Olympics taught us? Should sport be separate from politics? Does boycotting send an effective political message, or is attendance and competition a stronger form of defiance? And more generally, what can the government do to condemn genocide? These are the prescient questions being raised, and for which it doesn’t appear the UK yet has answers for.

Turning a Blind-Eye

Over the last few months it has become increasingly clear that the atrocities occurring in the Chinese region of Xinjiang have amounted to genocide. The UN’s definition of genocide is “removing children, preventing births, killing members of a group, seriously harming them or putting them in conditions calculated to destroy them as evidence of genocide”. The government’s ‘rehabilitation camps’ fulfill these criteria, with reports of  sterilisation, indoctrination, and horrific reports of systematic rape coming to light. This has resulted in mounting pressure on the British government to officially condemn what is happening. In a recent letter proposing an ‘Amendment to the Trade Bill Regarding Genocide’, some members of the House of Lords suggested that the UK courts should determine whether China’s actions are genocidal — and that if so, trade sanctions should follow. The letter made the point that “the UK has never succeeded in recognising a genocide while one was underway”. It seems the government is hesitant to take action: it would, after all, be a highly political act. 

However, the government has only offered a flimsy official defence. Chris Bryant, MP has stressed the fact that “All five categories of genocide behaviour, according to the Genocide Convention, are already in play in Xinjiang province”. And he concluded that, “I think it’s just extraordinary that the British government seems to have no backbone about it”. For the moment, at least, it seems as though this will be another instance in which Britain fails to recognise the genocide until long after it has happened.

Is Sport the Answer?

If the government has so far been reluctant to make official statements, does the answer lie in an Olympics boyott? So far 180 human rights groups have called for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic games, which are to be hosted in Beijing. The Lib Dem leader Ed Devey and Labour MP Chris Bryant — a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee — have urged officials as well as athletes to use the boycott as a protest against Uyghur oppression. Davey claimed that “The evidence that a genocide is now occurring in western China is so clear that the UK and the whole world must now stand up to Beijing and use every available tool to stop it”. Rather sardonically, he later remarked that “No doubt we will hear teams, sponsors and governing bodies say the Olympics and Paralympics should be separate from politics and that they are just concentrating on sport. But in the face of genocide, that just isn’t good enough”.

Sports and Totalitarian Regimes

The last major boycott was in 1980 for the Moscow Olympics. It was performed in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an attempt to defend the nation’s communist regime against rebel Islamic forces. The US President Jimmy Carter saw the intervention as a reflaring of Cold War tensions, which had previously been waning. Initially, the boycott appeared to work: popular support in America was polled at 85%. But Americans quickly began to realise that the move did nothing to prevent the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Support later dropped to 49%.

But the political precedent for using an Olympics to make an ideological statement is not confined only to boycotts.The 1936 Berlin Olympics presents one such case. Following a heated debate, America decided to compete, rather than snub the Nazi regime by refusing to participate. In an almost unreal Hollywood moment, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals and set three world records, turned out to be the ultimate testament to the invalidity of Hitler’s race theory. Owens couldn’t prevent the Holocaust by himself, but his completion of the 100m, 200m, and 400m relay faster than his white competition he was a powerful ridicule of Aryanism. Whether or not America planned it, the anti-Axis victory delegitimised the atrocities which were sadly already underway.

However, leaving ideological legitimation up to chance and success turned out rather less well for the British in the year prior. In one of the darkest and most brutally ironic sporting events in history, the English football team took on the  Nazis at White Hart Lane in 1935 at White Hart Lane. The stadium, well-known at the time for being home to Tottenham Hotspur, was a team supported by much of the Jewish community. Nazi flags were waved by spectors, and even the English players paid respects to the Furher by performing a Nazi salute. It is all too easy to cite the success of 1936 whilst forgetting this harrowing episode.

A New Era of Politicised Sport

The terminology of Cold War is now being applied to the tensions between the West and China. And as with the last Cold War, we may have to accept that the political connotations of sport have become even more salient. There’s no doubt that involving athletes, who have trained for years to be where they are, in the sphere of politics is deeply unfair. But there is also no point denying that such problems are outweighed by certain political stakes: genocide being one. Unfortunately, it is naive to assume that sport is separate from politics. Yes, it is in some ways cross-national and transcends the normal boundaries of state jurisdiction. But sport is inherently political because of the very fact that it is transcendental.

I could list historical analogies until lockdown ends, but ultimately analogies could be used to support either side without resolving the specific problem we now face (plus doing so would take us all the way to the 21st June – at ‘the earliest’…). 

Do we attempt to exert our soft power by competing, or undermine China’s by opting out? We can lose on either front. Perhaps, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. An article by Axioms China recently proposed a half-way compromise: a diplomatic boycott rather than a full-blown one. This would mean allowing athletes to compete, but refusing to send formal delegations and officials. In this way, athletes would get the chance to showcase their abilities, but our royals and elites might not get a free-bee. This approach may be the best: allowing the West to exercise influence, whilst also undermining China enough to chip away at its own soft power, and Xi Jinping’s benevolent facade.

First and foremost, though, this government needs to call out China for committing a genocide.