Earlier this month, the USA and other countries announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. They will no longer send high ranking officials or representatives to attend the events, and action which has infuriated the Chinese government. On this episode of Thinking in English, let’s discuss why the boycott has been declared, and if sporting boycotts are ever successful! 

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Vocabulary List

To boycott (v) – to refuse to buy a product or take part in an activity as a way of expressing strong disapproval

Many people boycotted the singer’s shows after he was accused of racism

Boycott (n) – the action of refusing to buy a product, do business with a company, or take part in an activity as a way of expressing strong disapproval

The charity has declared a boycott of clothing brands using child labour  

Atrocity (n) – an extremely cruel, violent, or shocking act

The rebel army is accused of committing atrocities against women and children 

Sterilisation (n) – the process of having a medical operation to make it impossible to have children 

Although they discussed sterilisation, in the end they decided to just keep a careful eye on their dog!

Tantamount (adj) – being almost the same or having the same effect as something, usually something bad

Her refusal to answer was tantamount to an admission of guilt

 Erroneous (adj) – wrong or false

The erroneous belief that the 2020 election was won by Donald Trump has caused a great deal of anger in the USA

 Apartheid (n) – refers to a past South African system under which people of different races were legally separated and White people were given more political rights, education, and other advantages

Nelson Mandela was an important leader in the struggle against the apartheid regime 

Cover up  (phrasal v) – to keep something unpleasant or illegal secret or hidden 

The police tries to cover up the truth 

Isolation (n) – the state of being separate, or kept separate, from other people or things

Japan had a policy of isolation until the late 19th century 

Symbolic (adj) – used to refer to an action that expresses or seems to express an intention or feeling, but has little practical influence on a situation

He knelt on the floor as a symbolic gesture

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One of the less serious consequences of the ongoing pandemic has been the cancellation or postponement of thousands of different events. For example, major sporting festivals including the 2020 European Football Championships and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games actually took place a year later in 2021. In fact, it feels like the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics only just finished, but the world is already preparing for the Beijing Winter Olympics which are due to begin in just over a month. However, not every country is excited to attend the major sporting event in China.

The Winter Olympic Games are a major international sport event, specifically for snow and ice sports, held every four years. If you listened to my episode about the Tokyo Olympic Games you should know the history of the Olympic and Paralympic sporting movements – if not, why not check it out?

The first Winter Olympics Games were held in Chamoix, France, in 1924 – and included five original sports: bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, Nordic Skiing, and skating. Over the years, more sports and disciplines have been added to the games, such as Alpine skiing, luge, freestyle skating and speed skating, skeleton, and snowboarding.  Until 1992, the Summer and Winter Olympic Games took place in the same year, but now are held on alternating even-numbered years.

The next Winter Olympic Games, in Beijing China, are due to be held from the 4th February to the 20th of February, while the Winter Paralympics will follow shortly afterwards in March. There are supposed to be 3000 athletes taking part in 109 different events, and the Chinese government is spending almost $4 billion on holding the various different events. Now, if you’ve ever been to Beijing and spent time there, you might be a little confused right now. You’re probably thinking – “a Winter Olympic Games in Beijing? How?”

Yes – Beijing can be very cold in the Winter, but there is one key thing missing in Beijing, that you really need to hold a Winter Olympics. Snow! It doesn’t snow very often in the Beijing region. And when it does snow, the quantity and quality is not good enough to hold Olympic sporting events. So, the organisers of the Olympics are planning to use 1.2 million cubic metres of artificial snow to allow events like skiing to take place!

However, the major news surrounding the Beijing Winter Olympics over the last few weeks has not been about sport! Instead, it has been political. The USA announced a diplomatic boycott earlier this month, and they were joined by countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, and Lithuania. What does diplomatic boycott mean? In a nutshell, while these countries will still send athletes to compete in the games, they will not be sending officials, politicians, or political representatives. Usually, hundreds of important and influential figures will travel to the opening ceremony of an Olympics, and not doing so is seen as a sign of disapproval of the Games. While action against the Olympics is so far limited to diplomatic action, there is still a chance that athletes will protest themselves, or perhaps sponsors may withdraw their support! 

Why a diplomatic boycott? A boycott is a political tactic usually intended to make a government change something political or social, or to shame a country. According to the US, they have decided to declare a boycott due to China’s “human rights abuses and atrocities in Xinjiang.” China’s government has been widely accused of committing atrocities against Muslim peoples living in Xinjiang; including more than one million Muslims being sent to “re-education camps,” hundreds of thousands sent to prison, and evidence of forced labour, sterilisation, and torture.

In addition, many Western countries also cite the actions of Beijing in Hong Kong as a reason to not attend the Olympics. Moreover, the recent disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai in November, and her subsequent changing story, has made more concerns. Hundreds of human rights groups and charities have argued that attending the Beijing Olympics without acknowledging such human rights abuses would be tantamount to “an endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.” 

In response, China has stated that the US and other boycotting countries have  “clearly violated the Olympic spirit” and “will pay a price for its erroneous actions.” What they mean by “pay a price” is still unknown. Of course, China has repeatedly and consistently denied all accusations of human rights abuses and denies all atrocities against the country’s Muslim population. They also react angrily to all outside comments on Hong Kong, which is considered an internal issue by the Chinese officials.

Some experts suggest that in response to the boycott, China could stop participating in some international agreements; they could disrupt trade; and they could sanction some foreign officials and diplomats. There is also a chance that China’s massive population could boycott western products. This has already happened in the past – earlier this year Western fashion brands including H&M and Nike were boycotted and protested after they announced the intention to stop using cotton grown in China’s Xinjiang region. 

Of course, this is not the first Olympic boycott. In fact, the Olympics have a long history of protests and political importance. In the ancient version of the events, Athens threatened to withdraw in 332 BCE due to accusations of match fixing and bribery. In the modern Olympics, boycotts have usually been motivated by more political concerns. There were calls to boycott the 1936 Olympic in Germany due to the Nazi party.

In Montreal 1976, 33 African countries refused to attend in response to the participation of New Zealand. New Zealand had just broken an international understanding by sending its Rugby Union team to South Africa – which at the time still had its infamous apartheid regime. In Moscow 1980, athletes from 66 different countries (mainly Western) boycotted the games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. And four years later, the Soviet Union and 17 allies boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in retaliation! 

However, the current diplomatic boycott marks an end to international cooperation over the Olympics. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been no boycotts, and countries fully participated in the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia – despite many similar human rights concerns existing. The International Olympic Committee has spent the last 40 years trying to keep politics and sport separate – however this neutral position has been increasingly criticised due to human rights concerns. For example, the Human Rights Watch accused the IOC of covering up Beijing’s crimes during a recent interview with the tennis star Peng Shuai.

How effective can a boycott be? Do boycotts of sporting events ever work? Consider the previous boycotts of the Olympics I mentioned – they had very little impact. The boycott of the Moscow Olympics by nearly 70 countries in response to the invasion of Afghanistan, and the boycott of the Los Angeles games 4 years later, did nothing to change the Cold War. The Cold War continued, and people most affected by the boycotts were the thousands of Athletes denied the chance to compete! Frequent boycotts of sporting fixtures against Israeli athletes by Iran and Arab countries hasn’t done anything to stop the Palestinian conflict.  

On the other hand, there are examples that boycotts may sometimes work. Perhaps the longest and most famous sporting boycott was of South Africa. For over 30 years, South Africa was not allowed to be involved in almost all international sports due to their incredibly racist apartheid politics. South Africa was banned from every Olympics from 1964 and 1992. And they had very little participation in international cricket and rugby – two of South Africa’s most popular sports.

Experts and political scientists believe that South Africa’s sporting isolation directly contributed to the failure of the apartheid government. Why? Well, the first reason is that South Africans, and the politicians in the country, loved sport – especially cricket and rugby. Not being able to participate or play international games was a source of frustration, annoyance, and anger! The boycott was also accompanied by other types of pressure – economic sanctions and domestic protests! 

The diplomatic protest of the Beijing Olympics is unlikely to be as successful. Instead, as the French President Macron stated, the boycott will be “symbolic and insignificant.” If they want to put real pressure on China, athletes, sponsors, and broadcasters need to also be involved in protests and boycotts. Or, as some organisations have argued, countries should be using the Olympics as a chance to influence China through participation.

This is the position of many countries when talking about next summer’s Football World Cup in Qatar – a country highly criticised for terrible working conditions and a place where homosexuality is illegal. By participating and sending officials, the host country can be influenced and educated. However, this is not a very convincing argument… especially as neither China nor Russia changed much after their previous Olympics in 2008 and 2014 respectively. 

Final Thought 

On this episode of Thinking in English, I have tried to introduce the debate and discussion surrounding the diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s controversial Winter Olympics. A number of countries, led by the US, are refusing to send high level officials or representatives to the games in protest over China’s human rights concerns. Although not the first Olympic boycott, it is the first for almost 40 years and since the end of the Cold War. As relations between the West and China get more tense, it is likely we will see more boycotts in the future!

Do you think it is right to boycott the Winter Olympics? Or do you think all countries should participate? What is your country going to do? Do you think the boycott will work?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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