WASHINGTON – The Biden administration is under escalating pressure to push for a U.S. boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, slated for Beijing next February, over China’s rampant human rights abuses.
Human rights groups and some Republicans in Congress say a U.S.-led boycott would send a forceful signal to China, as well as other authoritarian countries, about America’s commitment to democratic freedoms and President Joe Biden’s willingness to confront Beijing over what his own advisers have called “genocide.”
Others say the U.S. should not boycott the Olympics but want Biden to use America’s clout to prod the International Olympic Committee to move the Games from China to another host country.
Either move would be fraught, mixing sports and geopolitics at a time when U.S.-China tensions are already high. Other countries, including Canada and Australia, are also in the midst of a heated debate over whether to endorse a boycott.
Any decisions about a U.S. boycott would ultimately rest with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has so far declined to publicly entertain the idea.
Opponents of a boycott say it will accomplish little to nothing – except to deprive star athletes the opportunity to showcase their prowess and to mar what should be a dazzling international spectacle.
Proponents, meanwhile, say Biden and other world leaders cannot turn a blind eye to China’s gross human rights violations, and they worry that Beijing would use the Games as a stamp of international legitimacy to continue their campaign of repression.
“I can’t imagine giving Beijing this global platform to whitewash everything that’s going on,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and lead sponsor of a House resolution urging the U.S. to boycott the Games unless they are moved. “It’s unethical, it’s amoral, it’s just disgusting what’s happening.”
‘Concentration camps’ in China
Much of the outcry is focused on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang region. Under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, China has detained more than 1 million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in “re-education” and labor camps in northwestern China.
In explosive new revelations, the BBC reported last month that women in the camps have been subjected to systematic rape, sexual abuse and torture. Even before that story emerged, the Trump administration declared that China was committing “genocide” in its treatment of the Uyghur people. And the Biden administration concurred.
“Forcing men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to in effect reeducate them to be adherents to the Chinese Communist Party – all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his January confirmation hearing.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, has blasted the idea of a boycott and dismissed accounts of Uyghur concentration camps as false.
“A handful of U.S. politicians are politicizing sports against the spirit of the Olympic Charter,” Wang said on Feb. 4, according to a transcript of the news conference.
Like other Chinese officials, Wang asserted that China’s treatment of the Uyghurs is “about terrorism and separatism, not about human rights.” The genocide label, he added, “is the lie of the century concocted by extremely anti-China forces. It is a preposterous farce aiming to smear and vilify China.”
But the issue is not going away.
On Feb. 3, a coalition of more than 180 human rights groups issued a public letter calling on world leaders to boycott the Games – or risk emboldening the Chinese government’s “appalling rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.”
In awarding Beijing the coveted Winter Games, some argued it would spur progress in China. Instead, “President Xi Jinping has unleashed an unrelenting crackdown on basic freedom and human rights,” the human rights groups said.
The letter pointed to the Uyghur issue, as well as China’s crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and its iron grip on Tibet, where Xi has escalated a campaign to stamp out the region’s identity and culture through “re-educational patriotism.”
“A boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympics by governments is a realistic possibility, and one that continues to grow as more and more evidence comes to light of China’s unrelenting civil and human rights abuses,” Mandie McKeown, head of the International Tibet Network, said in an email exchange. “A boycott would deny China the chance to turn the brutal and illegal occupation of Tibet … and the genocidal treatment of the Uyghur people into a PR victory.”
In Hong Kong, China has imposed a so-called “national security” law on the city and used its sweeping powers to conduct mass arrests of protesters and regime critics.
China is also under fire in Washington and other foreign capitals for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its harassment of journalists and doctors who tried to warn authorities as the novel virus first emerged.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., has been lobbying the IOC and the Games’ corporate sponsors to move the Games.
“I don’t think a country … that puts over over a million people in prison for their religion, that just took away the basic rights of seven million Hong Kongers and is threatening Taiwan should be hosting the Olympics,” Scott told USA TODAY. “We can move these Games. There’s plenty of places around the world that can host these Games.”
Olympic committees unwavering
So far, the IOC has been unmoved by pleas to relocate the 2022 Olympics from Beijing, which would be a daunting logistical challenge, and painted itself as an apolitical sporting body. IOC president Thomas Bach has also cautioned against potential boycotts, saying last year that “a sporting boycott only punishes the athletes of the boycotting country.”
Scott blasted the IOC’s stance on Beijing, saying the committee “has just done the financially beneficial thing for them.” He said unless the Games are moved, companies that sponsor the Olympics will emerge with their bands “tarnished.”
When asked for comment on Scott’s remarks, an IOC spokesperson directed USA TODAY to a lengthy statement it had previously released, which says in part that the decision to award the Olympics “does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.”
“The IOC has neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country,” the IOC said.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee pointed to a statement it released on Feb. 4, one year before the Beijing Olympics are slated to begin.
“We oppose Games boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues,” the USOPC said in that statement. “We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and geopolitical issues.”
Meanwhile, White House officials have deflected questions on the matter.
When asked if an Olympic boycott is off the table, Blinken told the BBC in a Feb. 19 interview “that’s something we’ll come to at the right time in the right moment.” At the White House, Biden’s spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the president has not made any decision about a boycott.
“And of course, we would look for guidance from the U.S. Olympic Committee,” she said.
Waltz sees wiggle room in the Biden team’s answers.
“With Blinken on the record agreeing that there’s an ongoing act of genocide, I just don’t know how the administration sustains that position,” he said.
And while they’re demurring for now, Waltz said, “I do think it’s very interesting that they also haven’t said, ‘Absolutely not’.”
Boycott weighs on athletes
The calls for an Olympic boycott are not new. In fact, there were similar sentiments in the leadup to the last Games hosted by Beijing, in the summer of 2008, though in that case, little ultimately came of them.
U.S. athletes previously boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow under pressure from President Jimmy Carter, who viewed the boycott as a sanction after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Dozens of other countries joined the U.S. in its boycott, and the Soviet Union responded with its own boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Many U.S. athletes were furious over the decision to boycott, and a group of them even filed a lawsuit against the USOPC seeking to overturn it. Some are still seething about it more than 40 years later.
“We were viewed as kids who didn’t know any better,” Anita DeFrantz, a former rower who is now a vice president with the IOC, said last year. “We asked, ‘Can one life be saved by doing this?’ They said ‘No.’ And that just did it for me.”
Of the 474 U.S. athletes who were slated to compete in the Moscow Games, 227 never made it back to the Olympics. Carter later wrote in his 2010 book that pushing for the boycott was “one of my most difficult decisions.”
Current U.S. athletes have largely remained mum on the prospect of a boycott in Beijing, as the Olympic spotlight has been firmly on the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo. Though one of the brightest stars on the winter Olympic team, skier Mikaela Shiffrin, recently expressed frustration about the situation in an interview with CNN.
“You certainly don’t want to be put in the position of having to choose between human rights, like morality, versus being able to do your job, which on the other hand can bring light to some issues or can actually bring hope to the world at a very difficult time,” said Shiffrin, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Dick Pound, who was president of the Canadian Olympic Committee in 1980, said that boycott was ineffectual and warned against a repeat. He told Canada’s Globe and Mail last month that it “just ripped the guts out of our Olympians,” while having no impact on the Soviet Union.
But his warning went unheeded in Ottawa, where Canada’s House of Commons voted on Feb. 22 to declare that China is committing genocide the Uyghurs and called on the IOC to move the Olympics from Beijing.