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Ineffectual Boycotts: The Beijing Winter Olympics

Making moral statements in the blood and gristle of international relations can often come across as feeble. In doing so, the maker serves the worst of all worlds: to reveal a false sense of assurance that something was done while serving no actual purpose other than to provoke. Anger, and impotence, follow.

The Biden administration is proving to be particularly good on that score. Since taking office US President Joe Biden has nipped at the heels of China’s Xi Jinping with moral urgency. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has lectured Beijing on human rights abuses with mistaken clarity. The Pentagon has been firming up plans for militarising the Indo-Pacific and expanding its military footprint, notably in Australia.

Now comes a sporting boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. On December 6, the White announced that US officials would not be attending the games. In the words of White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the administration would “not send any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”

During the briefing, Psaki told the press about Biden’s remarks to President Xi: that “standing up for human rights is in the DNA of Americans.” Sporting personnel, however, would still be competing, suggesting that the spirals of such DNA might be wonky.

Washington’s additional aircraft carriers – the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada – proved to be three appendages in chiming imitation. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while stating to MPs that he did not generally support such measures, thought this exceptional. “I do not think that sporting boycotts are sensible and that remains the policy of the government.”

Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, claimed that Beijing could hardly be surprised by his country’s stance. “We have been very clear over the past many years of our deep concerns around human rights violations.” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, in justifying not sending diplomats and politicians, suggested that it was “in Australia’s national interest” and “the right thing to do.”

Such moves strike a farcical note. For one, boycotts of the Olympics in the name of human rights abuses have generally been ineffectual. The International Olympic Committee has been a consistent and firm opponent of the formula, insisting that sporting endeavours are politically neutral matters. They have been aided by the fact that such boycotts are rarely uniform or evenly applied.

In 1956, Spain and Switzerland refused to send contingents to the Olympic Summer Games in Melbourne in protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary. (Neither country could hardly claim to have squeaky clean human rights records, least of all Spain’s bloodstained fascist General Francisco Franco.) The Netherlands recalled their sporting team after they arrived in Melbourne for the same reason, though Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon did so for a rather different grievance: the Suez Crisis. “The little-noted absence of these athletes from competition,” writes Heather Dichter, “had no effect on global politics.”

The hollowness of these recent gestures against China is also evident by the fact that the ones who matter at such fixtures – the athletes – will be free to participate. Superficially, they have been treated as politically childish, even insentient. The competing athlete should have little time to ruminate over the plight of oppressed minorities or the conduct of a brutal regime.

This is the attractive, if fashionable nonsense of the IOC and, it should be said, many sporting bodies. It denies the reality that athletes are very much walking and participating statements of their country, whatever their personal beliefs. They often receive State funding and are implicated in their programs. Along with participation comes patriotism.

Sporting contingents have also expressed frustration at being used as examples of political furniture. The effects of US President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 22nd Olympiad in Moscow in protest against the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union did not go down well on the performers’ circuit. Swimmer Brian Goodell, who won the 400m and 1500m freestyle events in world-record time as a stripling of 17 at the Montreal Olympics, was crushed by Carter’s decision. “In Moscow, I would have been 21 and in the prime of my career. And zippo. (Carter) screwed with everybody’s lives. I could have made some pretty good coin.” Hardly an enlightened view, but then again, athletes are rarely selected for their capacious intellects and firm moral compasses.

When whole blocs of states have pursued sporting boycotts, some measure of difference has been achieved. The New Zealand Rugby tour of apartheid South Africa in 1976 saw a number of African states demand that the IOC expel New Zealand. Officials were cool to the suggestion, arguing that rugby had last featured as an Olympic game in 1924.

The ensuing boycott by some 20 African and Arab states of the Montreal games, which also featured the withdrawal of athletes, caused quite a stir. It troubled the UN Secretary General at the time, Kurt Waldheim, who wished “to point out that the Olympic Games have become an occasion of special significance in mankind’s search for brotherhood and understanding.”

Fancifully, the Commonwealth Secretary General Shridath Ramphal went so far as to argue that participating in the games, not withdrawing from them, would aid the “propitious resolution of wider questions.”

By not participating, the countries in question helped spur one particularly propitious resolution: the signing of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement between Commonwealth States. In reaching the agreement, the signatory members agreed to “combat the evil of apartheid by withholding any form of support for, and by taking every practical step to discourage contact or competition by their nationals with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa or any other country where sports are organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin.” Isolated, apartheid South Africa began facing searching domestic questions about the future of that political system.

An event free of wine guzzling and canapé gobbling dignitaries is something to cheer but leaving the sporting figures out of a “sporting boycott” is a proposition that remains pointless and absurd. The point was not missed by the authoritarian IOC president Thomas Bach. “The presence of government officials is a political decision for each government so the principle of IOC neutrality applies.”

At Beijing, sporting participants will be able to avoid the Carter experiment of 1980 and the babble about human rights and the liberty of the subject. Expect a few, however, to take the knee, though not for the Uighurs. In the meantime, the policies of the PRC will remain unchanged.


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  1. Jack Cade

    It’s about bloody time Australians realised that US interests have not been Australian interests since Betty Battenberg sighed off on the CIA coup in 1975.
    In fact, I’d go so far as to say since 1945.
    Far from it.

  2. leefe

    Maybe the US could focus on human rights abuses going on a little closer? Like, within the US … yes, anti-choice forced-birthers, I’m looking at you; and the gun crowd (why isn’t it a basic human right to go to school without the danger of being shot?); the white supremacists; the prison system; the racist for-profit health system … just to begin with.

  3. Douglas Pritchard

    Heartily agree with what is said. I do wonder what Julian Assange would make of the USA attempting to take the high ground while he has been hounded by them, and its a US goverment figure that simply want to take him out.
    Held in a max Jail in UK while his home country lacks the balls to see that justice is done.
    And when it comes to Apartheid and South African history, I am gobsmacked as to why we constantly let Israel off the hook, simply because the US blocks any attempt at human rights.
    The US is the last country on this planet to preach human rights, and our tagging along behind has the rest of the world laughing their socks off.

  4. Terence Mills

    So we are going to lecture China on Matters of human rights ?

    We are a country that has detained asylum seekers indefinitely on remote islands without trial and without formal sentencing.

    Last time I looked, the indefinite detention of people without them having committed a crime or having been sentenced by a properly constituted court of law was not the act of a democratic country where the rule of law should be fundamental.

    Is it appropriate in these circumstances for Australia to be criticising the human rights of other countries – genuine question ?

  5. Michael Taylor

    Terry, I looked up human rights’ violation on the United Nations website and Australia featured prominently: treatment of refugees, treatment of Indigenous Australians, treatment of whistleblowers to name a few.

    We pretend to be squeaky clean. We are not.

  6. Phil Pryor

    Morrison’s magnificent masturbatory misfit madness is not in Australia’s interests. B Joyce’s porking, rorting, lying, anti-intellectual backwardness is not also. A cast of the most shitskulled understudies, the Anning, Canavan, Fat George from Manila, Palmer, Hanson. Laming, Katter types (queersland again) is not in Australia’s interests. Bond, Skase, Connell, Stokes, Rinehart, and other sandgroping grots and grubs are not in Australia’s interests. Merde Dog the Big Yankee Shithound in not in the planet’s interests., anymore than ankle tripping scanties and halo dragging Glad, or Benito Barilaro was in our interests.., tax bludging and dodging foreign mining corporations are not in our interests…Now…

  7. Terence Mills

    It has been reported elsewhere that for any Australian diplomat, official etc to go to the Olympic Games, they must first receive an invitation from the Australian Olympic Committee (i.e. the Chinese don’t actually do the inviting).

    So we have snubbed the Australian Olympic Committee in our haste to up the ante in the curious trade war that we have embarked on with the Chinese and which we cannot win.

    Or maybe they didn’t think it through : that’s the more likely case.

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