The U.S. is staging a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics to protest China’s human rights abuses of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The full effect remains to be seen. But if history could offer any clue, it would be that Olympic boycotts—and sanctions against China, for that matter—rarely work.
The boycott, which could be joined by more U.S. allies, is going to be the first major Olympic boycott since the Cold War era, when the sports event regularly ran into geopolitical tensions.
The last Washington-led boycott happened with the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ahead of the games, then President Jimmy Carter banned all U.S. athletes from competing, in protest against the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan, following months of failed negotiations to get the Soviets to withdraw their troops. The boycott was joined by 65 other countries. China, which was at odds with the Soviet Union, also refrained from joining the Olympics.
The controversial boycott failed to stop the war in Afghanistan but devastated the American athletes who had been training for years for a chance to shine in Moscow. A small group of them filed a class-action lawsuit, contending the boycott violated their constitutional rights, but lost the case.
In July last year, on the 40th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Moscow Games, the chief executive of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, Sarah Hirshland, posted an apologetic letter to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team. “It’s abundantly clear in hindsight that the decision to not send a team to Moscow had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you,” she wrote.
Full boycotts have occurred six times at Summer Olympics, and most of them failed to yield major policy changes.
The Soviet Union’s boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, widely viewed as a retaliation for the 1980 boycott, did not prevent a record of 140 nations from joining the games that turned a huge profit.
In 1988, North Korea boycotted the Seoul Olympics along with socialist allies including Cuba and Ethiopia, but the games were widely seen as a success.
But some have argued Olympics boycotts could help countries bring global attention to certain issues. In 1976, 25 African countries withdrew from the Olympic Games in Montreal because they refused to compete along with New Zealand, whose national rugby team visited apartheid South Africa that summer.
Although the boycott did not force out the New Zealand team, it has been credited with raising international awareness of the anti-apartheid movement and showcasing a united stand by Black Africa.
Possibly drawing a lesson from 1980, Washington stopped short of prohibiting athletes from going to Beijing in 2022, opting for the more symbolic diplomatic boycott that prevents only officials from attending.
The Chinese government has pledged to retaliate against the U.S. while trying to dismiss any negative impact from the boycott.
The U.S. government has since 2020 imposed various sanctions on Beijing in response to the Chinese government’s mass detention of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A number of Chinese officials in charge of Xinjiang and Hong Kong have been banned from traveling to the U.S. and accessing their assets in the country.
The sanctions have prompted angry responses from the Chinese government, but few policy changes.
Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the U.S. Congress imposed tough economic sanctions on China, restricting technology transfers, arms sales and high-level contact with Chinese leaders until Beijing made improvements on human rights.
However, the Bush administration and the succeeding Clinton administration still favored friendly trade policies with China, believing economic growth would lead to gradual political liberalization.
Most of the sanctions were relaxed as the two countries became increasingly close trade partners. The Communist Party still forbids Chinese people from discussing the history in public. Some scholars say the role of U.S. sanctions have been limited to expressing condemnation over human rights issues, and were unsuccessful at changing Beijing’s behaviors.
But despite the poor track record of sanctions, many Chinese rights activists have continued advocating for boycotts of the Winter Olympics and other types of penalties against Beijing, hoping the gestures could exert international pressure on the Communist Party and at least prevent the bad from getting worse.
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