There’s chatter in some Western countries about a boycott of the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. The loudest call seems to be coming from Canada, where the argument goes something like this: China’s human rights record requires a response and not sending an Olympic team to Beijing would make a powerful statement.
Here’s the reality: Boycotts of the Olympics don’t work. They never have. They never will.
The largest and most controversial boycott happened in 1980. Then, President Jimmy Carter, determined to do something after a Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan, announced that no U.S. athlete would participate in that summer’s Olympics in Moscow unless Soviet troops returned home.
Carter cobbled together a coalition of roughly 60 nations to support his boycott effort. The International Olympic Committee, the Moscow organizers and the athletes who did take part in the Games shrugged. Soviet and East German athletes, already expected to win lots of medals, won even more. And the troops stayed where they were.
Four years later, the Soviets concocted an even more bizarre argument to lead a boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Claiming the safety of their athletes couldn’t be guaranteed in America’s second-largest city, Soviet leaders kept them home. A few allied nations joined in the boycott. As you might expect, no tears were shed by American athletes who won an orgy of medals. These also were the Games that welcomed China back to the Summer Olympics after a 32-year absence.
In 1980 and 1984, the IOC made clear it wouldn’t move the Games from the host city because of political pressure, no matter from which side of the Iron Curtain it came. A similar message was delivered in 1936 and multiple times during the Cold War era. To borrow a phrase made famous by former IOC President Avery Brundage: the Games must go on.
The IOC contends that politics and sports shouldn’t mix. Clearly, they do. Nevertheless, marrying the two concepts through boycotts is foolish. The scheduled events aren’t halted. The advertisers don’t pull out. The participating athletes still do their best.
Much like the stubborn family member who won’t attend a wedding because he or she doesn’t like the bride or groom, the celebration goes forward and no time is spent talking about those who didn’t attend.
The 2022 Winter Olympics will go on. Western governments that compel their athletes to stay home will have achieved a Phyrric victory: Their athletes will have lost any chance to celebrate Olympic glory with their national flag and anthem displayed for all to see and hear. And all the while, that country will retain strong economic co-operation with China.