Should American athletes boycott the Beijing Olympics?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The White House announced Monday that the United States will hold a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China.

The decision comes in response “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity” by the Chinese government, White House Press Secretary Jenn Psaki told reporters. The primary reason for the diplomatic boycott, Psaki said, was the ongoing subjugation of the Uyghurs — a Muslim ethnic group in northwest China. A U.S. intelligence report released earlier this year detailed allegations of torture, forced detention, sterilization, religious persecution and other atrocities committed against the Uyghur people. China has also come under fire recently for its efforts to quash dissent in Hong Kong and questions about the treatment of Peng Shuai, a Chinese tennis player who accused a former Communist Party official of sexual assault.

The administration stopped short of a full boycott of the Games, a step that more than 180 human rights groups have called for. American athletes are still free to compete. An athlete boycott would not be unprecedented. More than 20 countries, mostly from Africa, refused to participate in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal over South African apartheid. A U.S.-led coalition of more than 60 countries boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The USSR returned the favor four years later by skipping the Los Angeles Summer Games.

Why there’s debate

Psaki defended the decision to allow American athletes to compete by saying that it would be unfair to “penalize athletes who have been training, preparing for this moment,” and adding that the diplomatic boycott “sends a clear message.” That point of view has been supported by a number of lawmakers and Olympic historians, many of whom argue that past athlete boycotts have failed to make much of a difference.

Others say the best way to draw sustained attention to China’s human rights abuses is for American athletes, broadcasters and businesses to raise the issue repeatedly on the global stage during the Games. That opportunity would be greatly diminished if U.S. athletes stay home.

Critics argue that a diplomatic boycott is mostly empty posturing, and that pulling American athletes from competition is the only way to truly make an impact. There are also concerns that any U.S. participation in the Games will show the world that China’s offenses aren’t severe enough to warrant a significant response. “We should not in any way be legitimizing an Olympics that the Chinese view as an opportunity to advertise the virtues of their regime,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J.

What’s next

The United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have joined the U.S. in issuing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games. It’s unclear whether more countries will follow suit, or if any will take the larger step of pulling their athletes from the competition.

Perspectives

Supporters of a full boycott

Anything short of a full boycott is insufficient

“Our ‘diplomatic boycott’ of the upcoming Beijing Olympics is comically typical of American geopolitical action in our time: We are depriving Beijing of the presence of diplomats who had not been expected to attend the Olympics in the first place. Of course, we will still send our athletes: We charge the People’s Republic of China with genocide, but we would never dream of keeping our figure skaters and our luge team at home, because we are sentimental about young athletes. ‘But they’ve put in so much hard work!’ everybody says. Not as much hard work as the Uyghur slaves.” — Kevin D. Williamson, National Review

The U.S. shouldn’t be party to China’s effort to gloss over its abuses

“The Olympics should be about sporting tradition, fellowship and the furtherance of humanity in a unified manner. It should not be a platform for an authoritarian regime to showcase itself while persuading the rest of the world to turn a blind eye to the threat it presents.” — John Katko, USA Today

China can’t be trusted to keep American athletes safe

“[China’s] government continues to hide critical information about the covid-19 pandemic. Perversely, China plans to use international attendance at the Olympics to bolster its claims that its authoritarian model is superior. U.S. participation is both a public health risk and a strategic mistake.” — Josh Rogin, Washington Post

Sending athletes makes Biden’s diplomatic boycott appear hollow

“The diplomatic ceremonies that take place at the Olympics are the least important parts of the event; it’s the athletic competition that matters. Permitting the American athletes to go to China will undercut the power of the Biden administration’s diplomatic gesture. Now the moral burden shifts to the athletes themselves.” — Rafael Medoff, Forward

Opponents of a full boycott

Americans should use the global stage of the Olympics to hold China accountable

“The blunt truth is that a much-watched Olympics give the world leverage to highlight human rights abuses and raise the cost of repression. We should use that leverage.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

Pulling out all Americans would help China keep the spotlight off its human rights record

“It is not just about fighting the good fight, but a smart one as well. The key is to maintain, rather than release, the pressure on the regime. A full boycott involving the non-attendance of dignitaries, officials, athletes, and even corporate sponsors might seem like the only moral option, but it could prove to be counterproductive.” — John Lee, CNN

It’s unfair to ask athletes to sacrifice their dreams to serve a political agenda

“Practically speaking, a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics would hurt only the athletes, most of whom will never again have the chance to compete in the world’s greatest sporting event. On principle, I question whether it is right for the public or government to demand that sacrifice from them. They didn’t choose the host city, after all.” — Francisco Camacho, Tennessean

Past boycotts didn’t work

“Consider first that Olympic boycotts have been a singularly ineffective tool of political protest.” — Matthew Brooker, Bloomberg

The Olympics are not the venue for political gamesmanship

“Though we’re tempted to politicize everything, most people appreciate that sport transcends politics. In fact, they prefer the two remain separate. … Over 90% of fans do not want to hear about broadcasters’ politics; almost two out of three fans would prefer that athletes themselves avoid using their platforms for political purposes.” — Kevin Currie, Daily News

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

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