Politics and sport intermingle at the Beijing Olympics

The United States leads a diplomatic boycott over human rights abuses in China

MADRID, Feb. 3 (Royals Blue) –

The Olympic Games have historically served as a loudspeaker for political messages and, for the host countries, as a ‘de facto’ examination of contexts that transcend sport. The Beijing Games that start this Thursday are marked by the diplomatic boycott promoted from Washington, critical of the Human Rights situation in the Asian giant.

With the lesson learned from 1980, when the Jimmy Carter Administration even vetoed the participation of American athletes in the Moscow Olympics, the Joe Biden Government has chosen this time not to send a political delegation as a sign of rejection of the policies Chinese, leaving the sports field aside.

Among the “abuses” denounced by Washington, the “genocide” against the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region stands out. Beijing denies that such abuses exist – also accredited by the UN – and instead blames the North American power for trying to take political advantage of an event that, in its opinion, should be merely sporting.

Countries like the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have seconded Biden’s call, but most international governments have taken a stance. Some administrations, such as those of Denmark, the Netherlands and Japan, have confirmed that they will not send any senior officials, but have been ambiguous about the reasons, even citing the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse.

France and Italy, hosts of the next Summer and Winter Games in 2024 and 2026, respectively, also want to avoid any retaliation and within the European Union there is no common position, despite the fact that in July 2021 the European Parliament it did pass a resolution –not binding– in which it advocated a boycott if no “verifiable” advances were made in the field of Human Rights.

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Former White House adviser Victor Cha, vice president of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), values ​​in a recent analysis that, rather than influencing in search of political changes, Biden wants to send a message, “reiterate that it will not continue as before in the new competitive context of US-China relations”.

For China, the message also seems clear and goes through “feeding an internal narrative” about the “perverse hegemonic suppression” orchestrated from the United States. Beijing hopes that once the Games start, the leading role will be exclusively for sport, something that already “worked” in 2008, when the medals allowed turning the page on the criticism prior to the first Chinese Olympic event, Cha points out.

In total, some 3,000 athletes will participate in the more than one hundred disciplines that will be held from February 4 to 20. A month later, on March 4, the Paralympic Games will begin.

In fact, the surveys already suggest the little public relevance of the political messages launched before the Games. Barely 9 percent of US citizens have heard of the boycott, according to a Pew Research Center poll that outlines a similar level of support for the measure among Republicans and Democrats — approximately 45 percent.


Olympism has historically been a tool for twinning between communities and even the UN calls for an ‘Olympic truce’, by virtue of which it asks that clashes around the world stop for the duration of the Games. “Through the power of sport and the Olympic ideal, let’s build a culture of peace,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres claimed last week.

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However, the public speaker associated with a sporting event of such caliber has also given rise to protests for more than a century. The first recorded claim in the modern era of Olympism dates back to 1906, when the athlete Peter O’Connor, who was competing as a Briton, waved the Irish flag after winning the gold medal in the triple jump.

The 1936 Berlin Games -which the United States threatened to boycott- and the symbolic victories of Jesse Owens against the representatives of Nazi Germany remain in the collective memory; or those of Melbourne in 1956, when the first international boycotts took place. China was absent due to the inclusion of Taiwan, while Spain, the Netherlands and Switzerland stood out in support of Hungary after the Soviet invasion.

The eighties are marked first by the Western boycott of the Moscow Games and, four years later, in 1984, by the retaliation of the Soviet Union –and the countries in its orbit– to the Los Angeles event, while that in the nineties the scenario is reconfigured after the end of the Cold War. A united Germany participates for the first time in Barcelona 1992.

With the turn of the century, the Olympic Games reach countries that had never before hosted celebrations of this caliber and voices grow that demand that they not serve as a facelift for authoritarian regimes, especially after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) granted in 2001 to Beijing the 2008 Summer Games.

Protests were also promoted against the Winter Games that Sochi (Russia) hosted in 2014. Western leaders avoided attending the opening ceremony and human rights organizations took advantage of the occasion to criticize the Russian authorities for the growing restriction of freedoms and rights. , for example its laws against the LGTBI collective.

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