In reality, any calls for the cancellation of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing are unrealistic.
On February 4th, the world’s attention will head back to China, which will be hosting its second Olympic Games in 2 decades. This time though, the games will be plagued by controversy with numerous boycotts from countries across the world in the build-up. Stemming from the widespread condemnation of the country’s human rights abuses surrounding the Uighurs, the games are mired in criticism. But diplomatic condemnation is as far as it will go.
China isn’t unfamiliar with global attention, and they certainly know how to deal with infamy. Since the last Olympics hosted in Beijing in 2008, China’s image, certainly in the eyes of the West, hasn’t improved.
The West has been a long-time critic of the Chinese government, condemning its treatment of the Uighurs and various other human rights abuses. So, it came as a shock to few when in December, numerous western countries including the USA, UK and Australia revealed their intentions to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics. Yet this form of boycotting merely involved choosing to not send diplomats over to China for the duration of the Games, rather than the sort of mass abstention of an event that would have been justified.
The Chinese government was furious with these actions claiming that the Olympics were not a “stage for political posturing”. This stance isn’t necessarily unfair, since it is clear to all that these moves are purely political. The same diplomatic boycotts were put in place by the British at the 2018 football world Cup in Russia, in response to the Salisbury poisoning. This did not affect England’s ability to perform in the tournament, with the team reaching the semi-finals. Diplomatic boycotts function to ensure the government makes their stance towards another regime without harming the ability of athletes to compete.
However, one may question the statements of the Chinese government. It almost goes without saying that the Olympics has always been a stage for politicians to posture. From the iconic black power salute at the 1968 games to the appearance of a Korean ice hockey team which incorporated both north and south at the 2018 games, it is clear that major sporting events have always provided a platform for a political message.
Nevertheless, most would agree that a diplomatic boycott is the most sensible course of action. Athletes usually have nothing to do with the actions of a government, so it seems unfair that they should have to suffer the consequences of geopolitical disputes.
That’s clearly what’s occurring here. Despite some strong critics like Boston Celtics player Enes Kanter Freedom urging athletes to “choose morals over money” and boycott the games entirely, most countries do not want to act to the point which threatens the ability of their athletes to compete.
The significance of these games should also be noted. The Jamaican men four man bobsled team have qualified for the Olympic games for the first time in 24 years along with the women’s monobob and men’s two-man bob, a significant achievement for the country.
Surely instead of asking what can be done to show China that their actions are wrong, we should be asking why the IOC granted them the honour of hosting the games in the first place.
This question has a complex answer. For a start, the IOC has a record of excuses when it comes to hosting sporting events in China. They have even claimed that it would incentivise them to improve their human rights record. It would also be patently impossible to cancel the games at such a late stage, especially given the recent stress of having to postpone the summer Olympics in Tokyo. As such, the IOC finds itself in a bit of a bind and draws all the other countries and athletes into said bind by maintaining that these games will go ahead.
So, despite the vocal criticism of the West, the games will go ahead. It was never going to be the case that they wouldn’t.
Illustration by Josephine Moir