The U.S. Boycott of the Beijing Olympics Explained

Political Science and International Studies professors Erik French and Steven Jurek explain what it means for the U.S. to be both boycotting the Beijing Olympics, and competing in them.

“Politics are everywhere even in sports,” said Steven Jurek, Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science and International Studies Department.

While the Olympic Committee calls for an “Olympic Truce” during the games, they are still shaped by international politics.

For a full explanation, check out the video.

What is a diplomatic boycott?

Simple answer: Our diplomats or officials don’t show up, making a political statement, but our athletes still compete.

“The U.S. has engaged in a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in China. That means our athletes are still competing, just no U.S government officials are there in China representing the U.S. Government,” said Erik French, assistant professor. These games are unlike the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, when President George W. Bush was there.

Why did the U.S. boycott?

Simple Answer: A stance against genocide in China.

“The key bone of contention is Xinjiang, within China, and the treatment of the Uyghur population,” French said. Most of China is dominated by the Han ethnic group, but within Xinjiang there are multiple smaller ethnolinguistic groups, including Uyghurs, who have their own distinct identity.

Within that population there has been unrest. Some groups have pursued separatism and even committed acts of terrorism.

In response, the Chinese government has claimed that it is “providing law and order, securing the region, defeating terrorism, trying to address religious extremism and trying to expand the economy to give Uyghurs more opportunity,” French explained.

However, journalists, scholars, and activists have reported that the Chinese government is covering up serious human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The government has engaged in the mass incarceration of Uyghurs without allowing for fair trials. It faces widespread allegations that it has engaged in forced labor, torture, political indoctrination, sexual violence, forced abortions, and sterilization.

“So, this has led to the accusation that what’s going on in Xinjiang is, effectively, genocide. That the Chinese government is trying to restrict the births of Uyghurs to eliminate them as a distinctive ethnolinguistic group.”

While the US diplomatic boycott is a symbolic act and will likely have no impact on the Uyghur people, it is an effort to draw attention to the issue. The gesture serves “to name and shame China,” he said.

Countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia have joined the boycott.

What’s the impact?

Simple Answer: To the games, not much. But in politics, something is stirring.

In terms of athletic competition, there is no impact on athletes. The United States sent 224 Olympic and paralympic athletes to the games. By Thursday, the United States has earned 21 metals, with events left to go.

However, in the political sphere, the boycott has created another opportunity for Russia and China to bolster their relations. The two released a joint statement announcing a new strategic partnership.

French noted, “I think Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have taken this opportunity to strengthen ties and in some ways to display greater solidarity in the face of what they both see as pressure from the west, from the United States and its allies.”

Have the Olympics been political before?

Simple answer: plenty of times, some boycotts even included not sending athletes.

This is the 7th Olympic Games to include a boycott.

Notable boycotts include when the U.S. led 65 other counties to not participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. And then in response, in 1984 the Soviet Union led 14 counties to boycott the Los Angeles Olympic Games.

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Author: Meghan Finnerty

Posted: February 17, 2022