Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games, Chinese officials promised they would improve China’s human rights record. That didn’t happen, and no promises are even offered for February’s Olympics. So what CAN be done to send a powerful message?
The crescendo of voices around the world over the past year calling for a complete boycott of the Games because of the Uyghur genocide appears to have found few sympathizers among governments. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it is up to the COC to decide on a boycott — an idea that the COC has firmly rejected. And many are sympathetic to the athletes whose careers would be affected by countries cancelling their attendance.
A diplomatic boycott is not enough. More powerful would be an athletes’ boycott of the opening and closing ceremonies.
Another proposal is to move the Games to one or more other countries, perhaps holding it a year later. Of course, that would require the support of the IOC, which has no process for such a move. Any attempt to persuade IOC leaders and member countries would have to have started years ago. In any event, no country is volunteering to take on the significant expense, not to mention the wrath of China.
A diplomatic boycott is now under consideration in the United States. It has bipartisan support, and other countries are expected to join. But Beijing has already signalled that only Chinese residents will be permitted to attend sporting events, and there are tight COVID-19 protocols, so this may only impact diplomats who already live in China. However, a diplomatic boycott is an initiative that could attract more nations, including Canada, to sign on.
But a diplomatic boycott is not enough. More powerful would be an athletes’ boycott of the opening and closing ceremonies.
This would take strong leadership from a few prominent athletes to generate widespread athlete support for such action, and ideally in Canada it would have the tacit support of the COC. An athletes’ boycott of the ceremonies would send a strong message, and could be a big loss of face for China, on top of a diplomatic boycott.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston is a former Assistant Deputy Minister in the Canadian Government, and is now focused on China issues as a Senior Fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.