Some will remember Olympic boycotts back in the 1980s. There was the United States and an American-led block of 65 countries refusing to attend the Moscow Summer Games in 1980 after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and other human rights abuses. The Soviets and its eastern-bloc allies returned the favor during the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, citing security concerns. Here in the United States, the athletes had no choice in the boycott, and many missed their best or only chance for Olympic glory in the ensuing years.
Why not boycott China?
It’s a different world today. China’s record on human rights is a matter of public criticism, notably its treatment of Muslims in the Xinjiang Region and the crackdown pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. In November, the situation intensified when Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai made public claims that a former top government official sexually assaulted her. She disappeared from public for a time and then resurfaced, appearing to withdraw her accusations.
The United States and some of its Western allies announced that they were diplomatically boycotting the 2022 Games, but the athletes are encouraged to compete. There will be no government officials from the U.S., Australia, Britain attending events or ceremonies, which is a slap in the face to the image and status-conscious China. France will participate, likely not wanting to cause diplomatic waves with China before the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
The athletes are on their own
There was no doubt that the athletes at the Tokyo 2020 games spoke out on a wide range of issues, notably those surrounding race and mental health. These were personal, and sometimes they violated International Olympic Committee rules of athlete conduct, but the IOC seemed to let it go with no real penalties. Still, China is much more touchy about such things as freedom of expression and may have a much tighter over media and the internet – athletes have already been warned that their phones and computers will likely get hacked by government workers while in China.
It’s also fair to say that visiting athletes may not have much to say about the Chinese government’s actions regarding the Muslims, Hong Kong and Peng Suai as what’s going on in their home countries. They are, of course, focused on the goal of winning, happy to be there competing rather than being forced to wait because of COVID or sit it out because of international politics.