Beijing is about to become the first city to host both a winter and summer Olympics. However, this comes amid growing calls to boycott Beijing 2022, with critics labelling them the “Genocide Games”.
With less than 100 days to go, athletes, politicians and human rights activists are among those who want to see the games cancelled or boycotted for human rights reasons. The playbooks - outlining how the games will run - have just been released, but will the games go ahead as planned?
The Tokyo games and the concerns around COVID distracted people from the 2022 Winter Olympics for the better part of 2021.
But recently discontent with the Beijing games going ahead has reemerged in a major way. NBA basketballer and outspoken human rights advocate Enes Kanter is one of the latest high-profile voices to call for a boycott.
A group of US senators is also calling for a diplomatic boycott, which would entail world leaders refusing to attend the games.
This comes on top of calls from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China – including more than 100 MPs from 19 countries – for Beijing to be stripped of the games. The United Kingdom foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has said it is “unlikely” he will attend.
‘Using the Games’
Concerns about Beijing hosting the games coalesce around severe human rights abuses. These are longstanding, and played into China losing the hosting rights to Sydney in 2000 (although they did host the summer games in 2008).
As a coalition of 200 global campaign groups wrote in September:
At least two million Muslims - including Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Uzbeks - are locked in “re-education camps” […] The situation in occupied Tibet has dramatically deteriorated and in 2021 […] In Hong Kong […] freedom and democracy are under attack, and youth activists are being rounded up and imprisoned en masse. In mainland China, the Chinese authorities routinely disappear government critics […] At the same time, Beijing has intensified its decades-long tactics of geopolitical bullying and intimidation of democratic Taiwan.
Human Rights Watch says the Chinese government is using the games to “hide their abuses and to imply that the world approves”.
There is a precedence for not going ahead with an Olympic Games, despite the huge level of organisation and planning involved. The most recent example was the delay to the Tokyo games over the coronavirus pandemic.
The summer games have been cancelled on three occasions due to war – 1916 (Berlin), 1940 (Tokyo), and 1944 (London), while the winter games were cancelled twice – 1940 (Sapporo) and 1944 (Cortina D'Ampezzo).
Under different circumstances, the citizens of Colorado voted to withhold funding for the 1976 Denver Winter games and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) subsequently awarded them to Innsbruck. This followed a public backlash against the ecological and economic costs of running the games.
Take the games away?
The IOC could conceivably strip the games from Beijing and give it to another city – although realistically (and logistically) it is probably too late to do this. Any relocated games would logically have to go to a recent host city such as PyeongChang (2018) or Vancouver (2010), since they have the infrastructure and experience. There could also be an opportunity to postpone the games until 2023.
But the IOC will do its utmost not to cancel, move or have a widespread boycott of the 2022 games. It needs to protect its bottom line and prestige. Officially, the IOC is also at pains to keep politics out of the games. As president Thomas Bach says:
The Olympic Games are not about politics. The International Olympic Committee, as a civil, non-governmental organisation is strictly politically neutral at all times.
If it took the games away, China would then likely withdraw from the Olympics – as it did from 1956 to 1984. This would have a huge impact on the Olympic movement, as China has finished in the top four in the past seven summer games and sitting sixth on the all-time medal tally for the summer and winter games.
A political boycott?
But beyond the IOC, there can still be significant boycotts of the Beijing games.
The United States hotly debated a boycott in the lead up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany, while a “counter-Olympics” was planned for Barcelona (it was overtaken by the Spanish Civil War).
Six Olympic boycotts in 1956 (Melbourne), 1964 (Tokyo), 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow), 1984 (Los Angeles) and 1988 (Seoul) saw the games proceed with reduced participation. The reasons for these boycotts included war, invasions and apartheid.
There have not been any boycotts of previous Winter Olympics. But a boycott could prove very powerful. The winter games are not as “global” as the summer event. Most of the athletes and medal winners come from a small list of affluent western nations, such as the United States, Germany, Norway and Canada. So, if they were to collectively support a boycott, it could seriously undermine the competition and force IOC action.
However, most national Olympic committees, especially those in western democracies, are independent bodies and could ignore a government-led boycott. This is what happened with the Moscow games (1980) when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser supported the US-led boycott but the Australian Olympic Committee allowed its athletes to compete.
What about business boycotts?
Despite heavy lobbying by human rights groups, Olympic sponsors such as Coca Cola, Samsung and Toyota are trying to ignore the politics.
Major sponsors have not made any statements so far about changing their hefty investments (estimated to be about a US$110 billion) linked to the Beijing games. Meanwhile, a broadcast boycott, which would also be very powerful, also seems unlikely.
As the games get underway, athlete activism could surface. Former Canadian Olympian and scholar Bruce Kidd has made a plea for athletes not to boycott the games and instead be allowed to protest without contravening the IOC Charter.
It is fair to assume neither China nor the IOC will encourage overt athlete protests over China’s human rights record.
However, the rules preventing political protests from Olympic athletes were relaxed slightly ahead of the Tokyo games. This means athletes can “express their views” as long as they do not do so during competition or official ceremonies and do not do so against particular countries.
As we head towards the opening ceremony on February 4, all indications are these games will take place. But Beijing 2022 is on track to be one of the most politically-charged games ever.