“No normal sport in an abnormal society” was the argument used to justify a sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa. It is also a slogan that captures the argument of those in the west who are now pushing for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics — which will take place in China in February 2022.
The Biden administration has labelled China’s policies towards the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang as a “genocide”. The 1948 UN convention defines genocide not just as mass killing — but also as measures involving “serious bodily or mental harm” to a particular group, as well as the deliberate prevention of births and the forcible transfer of children. The Chinese government stands accused of pursuing these policies in Xinjiang.
Saying a country is committing genocide makes it difficult to justify taking part in a sporting festival on its soil. The voices calling for a boycott of Beijing 2022 are likely to grow louder in the coming months. Nonetheless, the US and other democratic nations would be wise to resist those calls, for now.
The evidence from past sporting boycotts is that they are only effective if they are sustained, global and co-ordinated with other forms of international pressure. The severance of sporting links with apartheid South Africa was respected by all the world’s major sporting bodies. It was also the first big step in an international campaign that eventually included economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
The sporting boycott also hit South Africa without ruining the careers of athletes from other nations — who were free to play rugby or cricket elsewhere. The Olympics are different. They are a one-off event that are the culmination of many athletes’ careers.
Forcing American and western athletes to sacrifice their careers could be justified if it would end the horrors in Xinjiang. But that seems unlikely. The US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 was provoked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, but did not lead to a Soviet troop withdrawal.
A western boycott of the Beijing Olympics would instead be a show of moral repudiation of China. But that ethical gesture would be undermined by the fact that most western companies would continue to pursue business as usual with China. Unlike with South Africa, there would be no economic boycott to go alongside the sporting boycott.
Rather than pursuing a wholesale refusal to participate in Beijing 2022, the US and like-minded countries should consider more targeted measures that dilute the propaganda value of the Olympics. The opening ceremony of the Beijing summer games in 2008 was a spectacular event that was watched around the world. It signalled the rise of a new China. A record number of world leaders attended the 2008 opening ceremony — including Presidents George W Bush of the US and Nicolas Sarkozy of France.
But there is no reason why western broadcasters should give primetime treatment to the opening ceremony for Beijing 2022. US and EU leaders who want to signal their displeasure with Chinese policies over Xinjiang can also stay away. A model could be the way the UK government treated the 2018 football World Cup in Russia, which took place just months after the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal on British soil. The British government did not send any official representation to the games. But it did not prevent the England team and its fans from taking part.
The world can enjoy a sporting event in Beijing in 2022. It does not have to participate in a propaganda event at the same time.