Boycotting Beijing: How should we respond to China hosting the Olympics?

No international event is immune to controversy, and the Olympics are certainly no exception. The games have always had a reputation for high-profile hosting scandals, from the Russian anti-LGBT laws signed just before the Sochi games to concerns safety concerns during the 2018 PyeongChang Games to the protests against human rights violations the last time Beijing hosted the Olympic Games. The 2022 Beijing Olympics will not be the first instance of politics intermingling with sports on the world’s biggest stage.

Multiple countries, including the U.S, have announced diplomatic boycotts of this year’s games in China, and it’s not hard to see why. While, according to the New York Times, the reasoning given by the United States was China’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang province, the reasons why any given nation would want to boycott the games are numerous. 

From the treatment of Hong Kong to Taiwan to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China has not developed a reputation as a wholesome member of the international community, and hasn’t seemed to want to. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, China’s reputation across the globe is increasingly negative. Chinese diplomatic policy doesn’t correct this, as its diplomats have earned a reputation for aggression and hostility, with their strategy being deemed wolf warrior diplomacy.

In the face of all of this controversy, no nation that claims to act morally could simply participate in the Olympic spectacle without some major pause. Not doing or saying anything is simply not an option. While the International Olympic Committee sensibly prefers that politics stay out of the games, there is no separating them from the host nation.

The Olympics lend legitimacy and better a country’s reputation; hosting them implies that the host nation is a productive, positive member of the international community. Therefore, letting China host the Olympics with no pushback due to their human rights violations would be a huge disservice.

On the other hand, a full boycott of the Olympics robs athletes of their opportunity to compete at the highest level. The Olympics as a political event are not as important as the Olympics are as a sporting event. Boycotting them fully for political reasons would be a disservice to athletes.

With full participation and a full boycott off the table, the United States and other countries have gone the route of a diplomatic boycott: sending athletes but not government officials to the games. While it is seemingly a half measure, a diplomatic boycott is unambiguously the right move when you examine what nations and cities gain from hosting the Olympics.

The Olympics mainly provide two things: boosted international standing for the host nation and an excuse to engage in massive infrastructure and construction projects.

Besides the prestige, the real benefit of hosting the Olympics isn’t revenue, but justification for construction. The Olympics and Olympic construction are notoriously expensive, and the profits from the games often don’t offset the cost alone. However, hosting the Olympics comes with the opportunity to invest heavily in infrastructure. Projects on the scale of Olympic improvements can be hard to greenlight, but the Olympic games justify governments approving massive investments in a given city’s infrastructure.

So if the federal government views blind participation in the Olympics as unconscionable (as it should), its focus should be on preventing China from reaping the full benefits of hosting the games while not robbing athletes of the opportunity to compete. Of course, no matter what we do, Beijing will enjoy the benefits of the improved infrastructure associated with Olympic construction. Still, through public condemnation and a diplomatic boycott, we can prevent the Chinese government from receiving the prestige bonus of hosting an unobjected Olympics.