Biden Orders U.S. Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Monday the U.S. will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the 2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing.

A delegation of U.S. officials expected to travel for Olympic events and ceremonies scheduled from Feb. 4 to Feb. 20 (and Paralympic events from March 4 to March 13) will stay home. U.S. athletes, however, can continue to participate in the Olympics and Paralympics.

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Psaki said the move is a response to “the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.” It is possible that U.S. allies will join in the boycott.

President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott attempts to accomplish two goals that would otherwise face some conflict.

On the one hand, the U.S. wants to send a message critical of human rights in China. That is especially important as to treatment of the Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim group living in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang. China has also raised political tensions in Hong Kong—as evidenced by the NBA’s controversy in 2019—and, more recently, in Taiwan. Further, China has been involved in intellectual property theft, pollution and aggressive military actions. Related worries have risen in the sports industry. The well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai continues to raise questions. Statements and a name change by Boston Celtics center Enes Freedom have also pushed the U.S. to act.

On the other hand, the U.S. wants its athletes, who have trained for years, to be able to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics.

A diplomatic boycott, compared to a full boycott, comes with downside. It runs the risk of appearing more symbolic or ceremonial than impactful.

Forty-one years ago, the U.S., along with 64 other countries, fully boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, as a response to the Soviet Union’s invasion into Afghanistan. While that move denied U.S. athletes a chance to compete, it struck a firm blow during the Cold War. The Moscow Games seemed incomplete or even discredited, feeling perhaps “less global,” what with 65 countries staying home.

With the Beijing Olympics, it’s unclear if fans will detect any difference. They’ll still watch the same athletes compete. Then again, President Biden’s absence will contrast with President George W. Bush appearing alongside U.S. athletes at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. The diplomatic boycott—a first in U.S. Olympics history—also denies the U.S. a chance to send a political message through its delegation. For the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Barack Obama made sure the delegation included openly gay athletes. This was done to share a critical viewpoint on Russia’s treatment of the LGBTQ community.

It remains to be seen if NBC—the official broadcaster—will adjust its coverage or if Olympic sponsors will regard their investments as any less valuable without the presence of government bureaucrats. Pursuant to a COVID-19 pandemic precaution, China will not allow spectators from other countries to attend.

In response to the U.S. move, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the boycott as a “naked political provocation” and warned China will take “resolute countermeasures.”

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