U.S. State Department 'wishes to discuss' boycott of 2022 Beijing Olympics

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2021, file photo, exile Tibetans use the Olympic Rings as a prop as they hold a street protest against the holding of 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in Dharmsala, India. Some kind of boycott is almost sure to affect next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.  It’s driven by the widely reported internment of several million Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China, which has been termed a genocide by numerous governments and human rights groups. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia, File)
Exiled Tibetans protest the 2022 Beijing Olympics. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

The United States Department of State said Tuesday that a "joint boycott" of the 2022 Beijing Olympics "is something that we certainly wish to discuss" with allies.

State Department spokesman Ned Price made the statement to reporters amid ongoing concerns about China's human rights abuses and calls for action around what some activists have termed the "Genocide Games."

The Winter Games begin Feb. 4, 2022. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in late February that "there hasn’t been a final decision made" on U.S. participation. The White House has not publicly indicated that it is considering a boycott that would affect athletes.

Price did not specify at Tuesday's media briefing whether the potential boycott in question would be a full boycott, or merely a diplomatic boycott.

A senior State Department official told Yahoo Sports that Tuesday's comments did not indicate a new U.S. stance. "We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners," the official clarified.

Calls for an 'economic and diplomatic boycott'

Many human rights groups have called on Western democracies to stage a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games. Senator Mitt Romney, among other politicians, has called for an "economic and diplomatic boycott." Many experts expect one to materialize.

“I have trouble imagining various governments sending high level people at the moment,” Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, told Yahoo Sports last month. “The key here is to not give the Chinese government any particular legitimacy around this event.”

A diplomatic boycott could mean that no American dignitaries attend the Games. It could also involve corporate sponsors, fans and other stakeholders.

Price, the State Department spokesman, indicated that communication with other nations will be key. “A coordinated approach will not only be in our interest but also in the interest of our allies and partners,” he said Tuesday.

Price was also asked Monday whether American companies should reevaluate their participation in the 2022 Olympics. He acknowledged that a recent State Department report on human rights in China was "quite strong." The report accused Beijing of “crimes against humanity," and reaffirmed the U.S. position that China's detention of millions of Xinjiang Muslims constitutes genocide.

"I'm not going to offer advice to U.S. companies from this podium," Price said. "What I can say is, when it comes to the issue of the Beijing Olympics, that's something that we're consulting closely with our allies and partners [on]."

History of Olympic boycotts

The U.S. has only once boycotted the Olympics in full – in 1980, when the Summer Games were held in Moscow, seven months after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Jimmy Carter and Congress rallied support among Western allies, and 65 nations ultimately spurned the Moscow Games.

Technically, the U.S. Olympic Committee had – and has – the authority to accept or decline an Olympic invitation. But in 1980, Carter and White House staffers exerted extraordinary pressure on the USOC, whose delegates ultimately bowed to that pressure and voted not to go to Moscow.

And it was the State Department that first raised the possibility of a boycott that year. "Olympics" was item I.A.13.g of a State Department paper outlining potential responses to the Soviet invasion. Carter and his top advisers first discussed it midway through a 1 p.m. meeting on Jan. 2, 1980. Within weeks, he was advocating for a boycott.

By the end of January 1980, both the House and Senate had also adopted resolutions supporting a boycott. At a Committee on Foreign Relations hearing, a 37-year-old senator from Delaware named Joe Biden noted that "the sacrifice ... we are asking of the athletes is unlike the sacrifice we are asking anyone else.” But he supported the resolution, in order to “deprive the Soviet Union of the legitimacy of these Games as well as punish them internationally.” The final Congressional tallies were 386-12 and 90-4 in favor.

The boycott incited fury and depression among many athletes. Of the 458 named to a ceremonial Olympic team that summer, 290 never qualified for another Games.

The Olympic movement's boycott stance

The International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee fought against the 1980 boycott, and now argue that it was ineffective. Some scholars and historians, though not all, agree.

Even some human rights activists who've pushed for action against Beijing acknowledge that a full 2022 boycott is not the desired course of action. “Because often boycotts can harm innocent bystanders,” Richardson, the Human Rights Watch director, said. “And in this case, that would be athletes.”

The IOC and USOPC have both advocated strongly and repeatedly against Olympic boycotts in general.

"While we would never minimize what is happening from a human rights perspective in China – as a values-based organization, we support inclusion, respect and equality for all – ... we do not support an athlete boycott," USOPC president Susanne Lyons said last month.

Lyons said that the USOPC had discussed the topic with White House staffers and members of Congress.

"Our strategy at the moment is to ensure that there's dialogue with many of the people in Congress who are obviously, for good reason, concerned about the human rights issues in China," Lyons said.

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