WASHINGTON – President Biden said Thursday that the United States is considering a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as pressure increases to hold China accountable for human rights violations.
The boycott would mean that government officials would not be present at the Games, which are due to begin in February, although that would not prevent American athletes from competing.
During a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House, Mr. Biden answered a reporter’s question about the possibility of a diplomatic boycott, saying that this is “what we are looking at.”
The commentary came days after a virtual meeting between Mr. Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping to prevent the escalating tensions from turning into wider conflict. While Mr Xi warned the administration against supporting Taiwan, Mr Biden expressed concern about violations in the Xinjiang region, Tibet and Hong Kong, according to a White House statement.
Abuses against the Uyghur community, as well as the crackdown on free speech in Hong Kong, prompted some 180 human rights organizations and members of Congress to call for the Olympics to be used as an opportunity to hold China accountable. But while some view the diplomatic boycott as a way to send a message without punishing American athletes, others have questioned the effectiveness of detaining a government delegation when public attention is paid to sporting events.
“Whether we like it or not, the Beijing Olympics are bound to take place,” said Frederic Megre, co-director of the McGill University Center for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and an international human rights lawyer. “The question is, do you want to give the Chinese government a photo report?”
Bipartisan support for any boycott is steadily increasing. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California this year urged the president not to allow the US delegation to participate, although she said athletes should be able to compete. Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, called Thursday for a complete boycott of the Beijing Games.
Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken told The New York Times last week that the United States is discussing with its allies “how they think about participating” in the Olympics. “This is an active conversation,” he said. The governments of Canada and Europe have also faced pressure to boycott the Games.
The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which will have to sign any full boycott, has made it clear that it does not support a boycott that would prevent American athletes from competing in Beijing.
“They have been proven to negatively affect athletes, but do not solve global problems,” said committee spokeswoman Keith Hartman of the boycott. “We believe that a more effective course of action for the governments of the world and China is to directly engage in human rights and geopolitical issues.” She did not respond to a follow-up question about what form of interaction the committee would prefer.
Mr Biden and Mr Xi did not discuss the Beijing Olympics during their meeting on Monday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Thursday.
But she acknowledged that “we have concerns,” noting human rights violations. Ms Psaki did not respond to an email asking if the President made a decision on the Games.
The last time the United States fully boycotted the Olympics was in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter opposed allowing athletes to participate in the Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s military presence in Afghanistan. Many believe the move is yielding few tangible results, but gives Russia plenty of room to talk about.
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“At the time, it was seen as a propaganda victory for the Soviets,” said Mr Megre. “It was viewed mainly as a punishment for American athletes and had no impact on the Soviet Union.”
Senator Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, echoed this view this year. The senator who chaired the committee that organized the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 wrote Op-Ed in the New York Times calling for an economic and diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Olympics, rather than preventing athletes from competing.
Restricting the boycott for government officials could be a way to send a signal to the leaders of the host country, as well as allow athletes to compete and protest oppression on the global stage, historians say.
After Russia passed an anti-LGBTQ law in 2013, President Barack Obama included three gay athletes on the US delegation to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
One of the most famous scenes in Olympic history took place in 1968 when sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists as a sign of black power.
“The regimes have a history of treating the hosts of the Olympics with an international seal of approval for what they do,” said John Soares, a history professor at Notre Dame who has written about the Olympics. “Critics of the regime’s human rights or other aspects of its politics say you don’t want to put this stamp of approval.”