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Confronting China over the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

Global Insight by Oliver Katz
People are seen near the lit-up Olympic rings at top of the Olympic Tower, a year ahead of the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, in Beijing, China

How can the US confront human rights abuses in China, without robbing athletes of the opportunity to compete on the world stage?

Since the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2022 Games to China’s capital city in 2015, there has been a dark cloud hanging over the Beijing Winter Olympics. Human rights abuses by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have led to numerous calls for the United States and other democratic nations to boycott the next Winter Olympics. A number of issues, such as arbitrary detention, forced labor, and forced sterilization of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, the brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrators protesting the CCP’s reneging on its agreement to allow Hong Kong self-rule, barring its own citizens from accessing uncensored news and social media, and harshly punishing those who attend religious services or express political dissent are a concern that cannot—and should not—be overlooked by the international community.

Many argue US participation in the Beijing Winter Olympics will serve as an endorsement of China’s abysmal human rights record, and that a boycott is necessary to hold the CCP accountable for its abuses. “Governments and the international community must boycott the Beijing 2022 Games and take a stand to uphold the values of democracy, freedom, and human rights,” said Dorjee Tseten of Students for a Free Tibet, one of 180 organizations calling for a boycott. Compounding the dilemma, such calls come at a time when the role that sports and athletes play in confronting issues outside the field of play has never been more prevalent—a topic highlighted in a recent Chicago Council event featuring US and Japanese athletes and other Olympic stakeholders. Increasingly, athletes are embracing their roles as activists advocating for social and political change, Olympian Meghan O’Leary argued. Sports diplomacy can also be understood as an important soft power tool for nations to further cultural understanding and address geopolitical challenges, as addressed by another recent Chicago Council program, Transcending Political Differences Using Sports Diplomacy, featuring a panel of experts highlighting how such efforts abate differences and the complex geopolitics surrounding global athletic events.

American public opinion on an Olympic boycott is split. In a March survey, the Council found that 49 percent of respondents support boycotting the Olympics in response to China’s human rights abuses while 46 percent oppose such a boycott. While there may be substantial support for boycotting the Beijing Olympics, that does not mean such actions will remain popular down the line.

In a recent Washington Post article, the Council’s Craig Kafura emphasized that after the US boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, public opinion eventually turned against the once popular decision. “A Time magazine poll in January 1980 found 68 percent of Americans in favor of an Olympic boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979,” he writes. “But with time came regrets. In 1984, USA Today asked Americans whether the US should have boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games and found that far more thought the boycott was a mistake (48 percent) than backed it (29 percent).” Kafura suggests the decline in support for the boycott was perhaps due to its failure in pressuring the USSR to abandon its military invasion of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the burden of the US stance against the Soviet Union as an Olympics host nation fell squarely on the shoulders of US Olympic athletes, many of whom missed their chance to compete on the world stage through no fault of their own.

As they weigh the pros and cons of participating in the Beijing Olympics, this leaves the US, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), and the Biden administration in a precarious position. How can the US take a stand against the human rights abuses committed by the CCP without punishing athletes who have worked their whole lives for an opportunity to be an Olympian?

The proper US approach to the 2022 Olympics may be a diplomatic boycott, an option for which Senator Mitt Romney, who served as CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics, has advocated. As Senator Romney writes in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Prohibiting our athletes from competing in China is the easy, but wrong, answer. Our athletes have trained their entire lives for this competition,” he says. “How should we meaningfully repudiate China’s atrocities? The right answer is an economic and diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics.”

Through this approach, Romney encourages American spectators to stay home, thus limiting the benefits the China Communist Party will reap from the enormous revenues the Olympics will raise. “Rather than send the traditional delegation of diplomats and White House officials to Beijing, the president should invite Chinese dissidents, religious leaders and ethnic minorities to represent us”, Romney advises. The notion of a diplomatic boycott also received important bipartisan support from Senator Tim Kaine, as echoed in a recent tweet: “Giving Beijing the global platform of Olympic hosting amid gross human rights violations—including government-sponsored genocide against Uyghurs—is irresponsible. While we still support the achievements of our hardworking young athletes, I urge a diplomatic boycott of the Games,” he writes.

A diplomatic boycott could potentially strike the right balance between the need to confront the CCP, on the issues such as human rights and Pacific assertiveness, but also to cooperate with China, on issues such as climate change. “There are areas of mutual interest that are global issues that can only be successfully addressed with strong cooperation between Washington and Beijing”, said former Ambassador to Singapore David Adelman on a recent Council event, The Evolution of China-US Relations in 2021. Finding that balance will be critical for the Biden administration to successfully accomplish its policy goals.

At a Council event examining Japan's Olympic Story from 1964 to 2021, Professor Paul Droubie said: "I think of the Olympics as an opportunity for a society to have a discussion about who they are”. Ultimately, a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will allow the US to shine a light on the abuses inflicted by the Chinese Communist Party, while ensuring US athletes have the opportunity to show the world their determination, sacrifice, patriotism, endurance, and sportsmanship —the very best of what America represents.

About the Author
Oliver Katz
Programs Intern