What, exactly, is a ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the Beijing Olympics?


The United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia have all announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

China has countered back, accusing the boycotts of violating the Olympic spirit.

While there may still be additional countries that opt to boycott, there’s one major distinction to make: With a diplomatic boycott, all athletes will travel to Beijing. It’s the officials who won’t.

So, what exactly is a diplomatic boycott? And how did we get here?

Who’s boycotting the 2022 Winter Games, and why?

The United States was the first to declare a diplomatic boycott on Dec. 6, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki saying the decision was in protest to “the PRC’s egregious human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Robert Menendez said it was “a necessary step to demonstrate our unwavering commitment to human rights in the face of the Chinese government’s unconscionable abuses.” The White House called on other countries to follow suit in protest of China’s treatment of the Muslim Uyghur minority and the suppression of democratic protests in Hong Kong.

On Wednesday, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom all followed the United States. “We have been very clear over the past many years of our deep concerns around human rights violations,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said they too have raised concerns over the “the human rights abuses in Xinjiang … but the Chinese government has consistently not accepted those opportunities for us to meet about these issues.”

When asked on Wednesday whether Britain would follow the diplomatic boycotts, Prime Minister Boris Johnson responded, “There will be effectively a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. No ministers are expected to attend and no officials.” He later added, “The government has no hesitation in raising these issues with China, as I did with President Xi the last time I talked to him.”

Lithuania and Kosovo have also declared diplomatic boycotts, while New Zealand had announced earlier in the year that it would not be sending any diplomats due to pandemic travel issues, but has also noted its concerns over human rights violations in China.

What is a diplomatic boycott?

This means the countries will not send any delegates to the Games. These figures are usually high-ranking politicians or members of a country’s royal family, and typically appear at the opening and closing ceremonies and some of the competitions. The Olympic Games have historically been viewed by nations as an opportunity for world leaders to meet.

As of now, all countries that have announced a diplomatic boycott are still sending their athletes.

“We recognize how this announcement draws the important distinction between the participation of athletes and the participation of government officials at the Games,” said a statement from the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees. The statement added the athletes “remain concerned about the issues in China but understand the Games will create an important platform to draw attention to them.”

This is the first time countries have opted for a purely diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. While the above-named countries are taking a political stance, some others have expressed that they will not follow suit, at least in the form of a diplomatic boycott.

Russian president Vladimir Putin will be at the opening ceremony, with Stanislav Pozdnyakov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, calling the boycotts “pointless”.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said on Thursday that the country would not join the boycott, and its Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said there was a need for a common European stance on the issue of a diplomatic boycott, something Germany has agreed with.

Elsewhere, Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Tuesday said Japan would make its own decision “from the perspective of national interests, taking into consideration the significance of the Olympic Games and the significance of Japan’s diplomacy. This is the basic attitude of our country.”

How has China responded?

On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing that the boycott “seriously violates the principle of political neutrality of sports established by the Olympic Charter and runs counter to the Olympic motto ‘more united.'”

Zhao also vowed that China would respond with “resolute countermeasures” but gave no details. “The U.S. will pay a price for its practices. You may stay tuned for follow-ups,” he said.

On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin echoed the same sentiments, saying, “Sports has nothing to do with politics.”

Wang added, “The U.S., Australia, Britain and Canada’s use of the Olympic platform for political manipulation is unpopular and self-isolating, and they will inevitably pay the price for their wrongdoing.”

What has the IOC said about the boycotts?

While countries announce boycotts, the IOC has maintained “political neutrality,” in accordance with the Olympic Charter, which states one of the Olympic movement’s goals is “to protect its independence, to maintain and promote its political neutrality and to preserve the autonomy of sport.”

IOC member Juan Antonio Samaranch said this week, “We always ask for as much respect as possible from the political world and the least possible interference on our sports and Olympic world and ideals.”

The news of the boycotts comes while the sports world is still concerned about the safety and whereabouts of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai dropped from sight after accusing a former high-ranking official of sexual assault. While the WTA has announced “the immediate suspension of all WTA tournaments in China,” the IOC says it has held two video calls with Peng and she was “doing fine,” with IOC president Thomas Bach saying the sporting body was pursuing “quiet diplomacy” in ensuring her wellbeing amid concerns over athlete safety at Beijing 2022.

What is a full boycott, and why wouldn’t countries opt for that?

In a full boycott, a country will completely withdraw from competing and attending an Olympic Games. This decision is, predominantly, politically motivated. The U.S., famously, led a complete boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow in response to the Soviet-Afghan war. The move angered many of the American athletes.

“At least the 1980 boycott served as reference and an example of what not to do,” former American swimmer Craig Beardsley, 61, said about the White House’s Monday announcement. “Unless the world falls apart, you won’t see a boycott; there’s just too much money at stake, unlike in ’80 when we were basically all amateurs.”

Those athletes had to wait 30 years for an apology, with USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland writing an open letter in 2020. “It’s abundantly clear in hindsight that the decision to not send a team to Moscow had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you – American athletes who had dedicated themselves to excellence and the chance to represent the United States,” she wrote. “We can clearly state you deserved better. You deserved the support of an inspired nation, to be celebrated for representing our country with pride and excellence.”

The notion of boycotting an Olympics dates back to 1956, when eight countries withdrew from competing at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Egypt, Iraq, Cambodia and Lebanon withdrew because of the Suez Crisis, while Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. China also withdrew from that Olympics because Taiwan was set to compete.

North Korea, Indonesia and China boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Games following the IOC’s decision to ban athletes who competed in the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces in Jakarta. A total of 34 countries withdrew from competing at the Montreal Games in 1976, with many making that decision in protest to New Zealand being allowed to compete after their rugby team had toured Apartheid South Africa that year.

A total of 66 countries did not attend the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The then Soviet Union and 17 other countries responded by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games. North Korea and Cuba boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

There have also been instances when countries have been banned from participating in the Olympic Games by the IOC. Germany and Japan were not invited to the 1948 London Games due to their role in World War II, while South Africa was expelled from the IOC in 1970 due to the Apartheid regime, and was only readmitted ahead of Barcelona in 1992. Russia was banned by the IOC from the 2018 PyeongChang Games and Tokyo 2020 due to state-sponsored doping, but Russian athletes were allowed to compete under the Olympic flag in 2018, and then as part of the ROC (Russian Olympic Committee) team in 2021.

Additional reporting by William Weinbaum. Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.

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