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Explained: Why diplomatic boycott of Beijing Winter Games is a non-story in sporting circles

As China's capital decks itself up to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022, several countries have announced a diplomatic boycott of the event. Does this affect athletes' participation?

Written by Mihir Vasavda , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: December 11, 2021 8:27:56 am
A cleaning worker walks past a logo of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics inside the Olympic Tower, in Beijing, China December 10, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Tingshu Wang)

In 2008, the then USA president George Bush traveled to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Olympics, which were seen as China’s coming-out party.

However, there will be no US government official present when Beijing hosts the Winter Games in a little more than two months. As China’s capital decks itself up to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022 – making it the only city in the world to host both the Summer and Winter Games – the US, earlier this week, announced a diplomatic boycott of the event. The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have followed their lead and made a similar decision.

Does a diplomatic boycott affect athletes’ participation?

It doesn’t. Unlike the 1980 Moscow Olympics and 1984 Los Angeles Games, a period when thousands of athletes did not participate due to the prevailing political situation at the time, athletes and officials from all countries will continue to take part in the Winter Olympics in Beijing unhindered. No athlete has even hinted at skipping the Games, meaning all those who are eligible and have qualified will take part.

One of the key differences between then and now is money. The Olympics now are a billion-dollar enterprise and a boycott could cost teams and a sport a fortune, especially the US since American broadcaster NBC pays billions of dollars to the International Olympic Committee to show the Games.

If US athletes do not take part, their revenue, too, will be significantly impacted.

What is a diplomatic boycott?

It means that the US and the four other countries will not send an official government delegation to Beijing during the Games.

Given the scale of the event, high-ranking officials from a country’s government often travel to the Olympics. These officials are often labeled as the ‘VIP visitors’. Earlier this year, US first lady Jill Biden led an American delegation to the Tokyo Olympics and at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, American vice-president Mike Pence was present. There is no obligation for a head of state to visit or send a team to the Olympics, and not many countries other than the US indulge in this. Also, the Winter Olympics are not as sought-after as the Summer Games.

What led to this situation?

China has come under intense scrutiny over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. While announcing the decision, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, referred to the “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang Province where there has allegedly been a severe crackdown on Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities by the Chinese government. The Australian government, which has had diplomatic fallout with China over this issue, too cited the same reason.

The recent case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a former top government official of sexually assaulting her, also contributed to this decision. Moments after Peng Shuai made her allegations, on Chinese social media, the posts were taken down and she disappeared from public view for days. The International Olympic Committee has said it has spoken to her, but concerns over her safety remain.

The European Union is yet to respond to the calls for a boycott. On Thursday, France’s sports minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, said that Paris would not follow Washington’s lead. “We need to be careful about the link between sports and politics,” Blanquer was quoted as saying by The Guardian. “Sports is a world apart that needs to be protected from political interference. If not, things can get out of control and it could end up killing all of the competitions.”

It must be noted that Paris is hosting the next Summer Olympics, in 2024.

How has China reacted to this?

China has said it is “not bothered at all” by the boycotts. In a tweet following the USA’s announcement on Monday, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said: “In fact, no one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the #Beijing2022 to be successfully held.”

Global Times, China’s state-run newspaper, dismissed Australia’s decision as “immature, arrogant and stupid” while the government said the boycotting countries will “pay a price”.

“The United States, Britain and Australia have used the Olympics platform for political manipulation,” Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson at the Chinese foreign ministry, said at a press conference. “They will have to pay the price for their mistaken acts.”

A crew member fixes a logo for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. (Photo: AP)

Will this have any impact on the Olympics?

Unlikely. China has said it was anyway not going to invite delegations from other countries because of the pandemic-related restrictions. None of the sponsors or broadcasters have so far pulled out and as things stand, the participation of the athletes, too, is guaranteed. In fact, the US has said it will fully support its athletes even as they diplomatically boycott the Winter Olympics.

Is this the first time such a move has been announced?

No. In 2014, then-President Barack Obama, his deputy Joseph Biden and first lady Michelle Obama skipped the Sochi Winter Games in Russia. Their decision, although not a formal boycott, was seen as an outcome of Russia’s crackdown on gay rights and ‘possibly motivated by Russia’s giving political asylum to Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents about American spying’, according to The New York Times.

Will this have any impact in the going ahead?

There are fears that the move led by the US could provoke China to do the same. The US and Australia are the hosts of the Summer Olympics in 2028 (Los Angeles) and 2032 (Brisbane). The US is reportedly looking to stage the Winter Olympics as well in the near future. And with many key Olympic sponsors being Chinese, it could get tricky for the US bid.

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