The Volokh Conspiracy

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A "Diplomatic" Boycott of the Beijing Olympics isn't Good Enough

Only a real boycott - with athletes staying away - can have any meaningful effect.


President Biden recently indicated he is considering a "diplomatic" boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing:

President Joe Biden said Thursday that the United States was considering a diplomatic boycott of next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing over China's human rights abuses, a move that would keep American dignitaries, but not athletes, from the Games.

Speaking to reporters as he hosted Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Oval Office, Biden said backing a boycott of the Olympics in February is "something we're considering."

I very much support the idea of boycotting the Beijing Games in response to the Chinese government's many horrific human rights violations. I laid out the case for doing so in this February post, where I also addressed some possible objections.

But a "diplomatic" boycott is unlikely to accomplish anything of value. Few people care whether various American "dignitaries"- presumably meaning politicians and diplomats—attend the Games or not. People watch the Games to see the athletes compete, not to see dignitaries sitting in the stands. Thus, even if various dignitaries stay away, the Games will go on and be just as much a propaganda showcase for the Beijing regime. Few viewers will even notice the dignitaries' absence, much less connect it with Chinese human rights violations.

By contrast, a true boycott will deny the regime a valuable propaganda opportunity, and make it pay a real price for its actions. It would be even better if the threat of a boycott by liberal democratic states forced the International Olympic Committee to move the Games out of China, for fear of losing TV revenue and undermining the quality of competition. Alternatively, if the IOC refuses to listen to reason, boycotting nations can hold their own alternative games—call them the Freedom Games or something similar. This would further divert viewers from the Chinese Games, and also mitigate the harm to athletes' careers caused by denying them the opportunity to compete in Beijing. I discuss both of these scenarios¬† in my earlier post on this topic.

Time is growing short, as the Games are scheduled to begin on February 4. But, if the political will is there (an admittedly big if), it's not too late to mount a real boycott, as opposed to an essentially worthless "diplomatic" one.