Boycotting the Olympic Games – is it still fashionable?

Boycotting the Olympics makes a comeback since the ever-popular ice out during the New Cold War period which has its roots in 1979 and where the tension came to a halt in 1985. Today in 2022, roughly 40 years later the world has experienced a new, nonviolent resisting force performed by some of the most influential nations towards the one and only Red Dragon. The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and India among other “teammates” (since it’s the Olympics one needs to use the right terms) declared a diplomatic boycott for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games against the organiser Beijing, China.

What was their motive behind the political move? How did the world react? Is sport immune and neutral to politics?

Protesters demonstrate against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics source:

“Blood in the water” – 1956: a date with so many meanings

Before jumping into the Second Cold War and its famous boycotts a short but rather important outlook should be taken to introduce the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The infamous year gained a special meaning throughout the world due to different reasons. For some the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress comes into mind led by Khrushchev during which he criticised the system run by Joseph Stalin. For Tunisia it means their new-sprung independence from France. However, in general it is remembered for the Suez crisis and the Hungarian revolution and war of independence.

The measures, actions carried out in both cases were heavily judged internationally. In order to emphasize their disapproval six nations made the decision to boycott the Games. As a sign of protest against the Soviet invasion of Hungary the Netherlands, Switzerland and Spain opted not to participate in the Olympics.

As for Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon the motive for the boycott was the British-French-Israel invasion of the Suez Canal.

Last but not least China opted for a boycott as well since Taiwan was able to participate.

Hungarian athletes however did participate in the Games of the XVI Olympiad and their water polo match against the Soviet Union became one of the most memorable events in Olympic history as it symbolises the Hungarian nation’s struggling fight against the USSR. On 6th December 1956 the semi-finals began where the nations in question (Hungary and the USSR) were up against each other. As the Hungarian water polo players learned the news about the repression of the revolution and war of independence only in Australia it was more than obvious that the upcoming match was about to have a much greater significance for the two teams.

“A whistle came, I looked at the referee, I said ‘What’s the whistle for?’ And the moment I did that, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake.” 

Ervin Zádor was the Hungarian team’s prodigy. He scored two of the four goals against the USSR and was asked to mark Valentin Prokopov, the Soviet’s outstanding player. During the match there had already been kicking and punching from both teams however in that very moment when Zádor was paying attention to the referee’s whistle he was hit in the eye by Prokopov.

“I saw about 4,000 stars. And I reached to my face and I felt warm blood pouring down. 

“And I instantly said, ‘Oh my God, I won’t be able to play the next game.'” 

Ervin Zádor source:

The mutual boycott: 1980 and 1984

1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow

As a method to show their disapproval of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan taken place in 1979, the Jimmy Carter administration decided to boycott the Summer Olympic Games along with 64 other nations. The invasion, which should have been quick as lightning ended up being a decade long war.

The full boycott of the Moscow Olympics was supported by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate as well. However, the decision of sending athletes to the Games had to be made by the United States Olympic Committee. Seeing the support, the political move had gained in the end they accepted the views of the U.S. Government. The U.S. athletes were warned that travelling to Moscow meant them being stripped of their passports. As a way of giving emphasis to their protest 25 professionals (athletes) sued the U.S. Government but their plan did not result in success, and they lost the case.

Along with the United States, Haiti, Honduras, South Korea, Paraguay, Chile and the People’s Republic of China opted not to send any of their top ranked sportspeople to the Games of the XXII Olympiad.

Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev source:
Revenge is a dish best served cold – 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles

In 1984 just months before the opening ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics the Soviet Union opted not to participate in the most prestigious sporting event of the world. The reason behind their call was the anti-Soviet hysteria and environment that was forming in the place of the event. The USSR officials feared protests against the Soviet athletes in Los Angeles and so staying out of the Games was considered to be the best solution to the potential threat. To say it in plain English it was the USSR’s response to the United States’ boycott staged four years earlier.

The U.S. President Ronald Reagan called the move “a blatant political decision for which there was no real justification.”

After the announcement of the Soviet Union 13 other socialist countries followed the path of the CCCP. With the USSR out of competition the United States was able to have one of their greatest wins and established a new Olympic record by collecting 83 gold medals.

The boycott of present days

Despite the ever-growing cases of coronavirus in the world, the spread of the latest omicron variant and to top everything off the boycott led by the United States of America the XXIV Olympic Winter Games began this Friday, on 4th February 2022. It started according to plan and will last until 20th February. 91 teams and 2871 individual athletes compete in the world’s most well-known sporting event.

In order to contain the global pandemic China has established a policy of “zero Covid”. Amongst the measures one of the most important decisions is to organise the Games without any foreign spectators with only a small circle of invited guests who are obligated to follow strict regulations before, during and after watching the Olympics.


An invention has made its debut as well, the “system of the bubble”. Athletes and their team, local support workers, volunteers are part of a sealed bubble in which they are required to stay during the Games. As there are different competing venues the transport system had to be altered as well. In order to do so a red sign is used on all vehicles designated for Olympic personnel only.

Athletes or anyone entering the so-called bubbles need to be vaccinated or spend 21 days in quarantine. Testing is done daily, and masks must be worn at all times.

Moving on to the main issue the United States declared a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. American athletes are still welcome to compete however no official delegation will be sent by the States. The USA does not want to hold back the competitors who have years and years of training behind this one global event, however no officials will attend the Games in Beijing. The US called for the boycott due to human rights abuses committed especially against the Uyghur population (an ethnic, predominantly Muslim minority living mostly in Xinjiang) in China and considers these actions in question carried out by China genocide in the Xinjiang region. Sending official representation would signal that the Games were “business as usual,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. “And we simply can’t do that.”

Later on, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Kosovo, Lithuania, Estonia, Belgium and India all announced to take part in the diplomatic move. Just as the standard-bearer of the movement the latter nations’ athletes are also permitted to compete, but no officials or ministers would represent the countries.

USA announces diplomatic boycott source:

China criticized the USA’s tactic and called the move a “self-directed political farce”. A statement by the Spokesperson of the Chinese Mission to the UN said that “the US just wants to politicize sports, create divisions and provoke confrontation”.

In the US both parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, support the boycott. “While we must support and celebrate our athletes, America – and the world – cannot give our official imprimatur to these games or proceed as if there is nothing wrong with holding the Olympics in a country perpetrating genocide and mass human rights violations,” Ms Pelosi Democratic House of Representatives’ Speaker said. However, there are some who are not satisfied with the measures and want more just like Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney who called the diplomatic boycott a “half measure” and would like to see a full boycott taking place in order to achieve a greater emphasis regarding the United States’ disapproval on the matter of human rights abuses in China.

Relations between the United States of America and China

During the Trump era the US-Chinese relations hit a low point as a consequence of the trade war between the two countries. The Trump administration believed that China was “ripping off” the United States. As a response to the USA’s move China considered the action “trade bullying” and warned of a potential global market unrest. Moreover, the statements of Donald Trump accusing the Chinese city of Wuhan and China itself for the outburst of the global pandemic certainly did not alleviate the relation between the two nations.

As for Joe Biden, the newly elected US President chose a different path. He intended to re-engage with Beijing but at the same time he also began to strengthen the traditional US alliances against the Chinese ever-growing economy and military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

Allegations against China

China allegedly incarcerated at least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in the camps of Xinjiang. Human rights groups believe that Beijing has detained more than a million Uyghurs in what the state calls re-education camps and many of them have been sentenced to prison. Moreover, it is also said that forced labour, sterilization of women, tortures and sexual abuse are all common as well. The most well-known human rights groups such as Amnesty International have accused China of crimes against humanity.

Amongst many nations the US, Canada, UK accuse China of committing genocide, which is defined by the international convention as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. According to reports, which back up the accusations of the US and its fellow nations China interns Uyghurs in camps, sterilizes women to reduce the population, separates children from their families and is on a mission to break the cultural and traditional customs, practices of the group in question. Back in November 2021, an unofficial tribunal based in the United Kingdom stated that China had committed genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. “Now there is no excuse for the international community to continue its silence on the Uyghur genocide,” said Sir Geoffrey Nice, an outstanding British barrister. “It is the legal obligation of all countries who signed the 1948 genocide convention to take legal action.”

Beijing however denies the charges.

The region of Xinjiang in China source:

Mixing politics with sports– is it a good match?

According to China the US is needlessly “politicizing” sports and thinks that “No-one would care about whether these people (official delegation) come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics to be successfully held,” said spokesman Liu Pengyu, quoted by Reuters.

Ironically one can say that no one knows how to politicize sports better than China as it ignored the Olympic Charter’s mandate to keep politics out of sports and boycotted the Olympic Games from 1952 all the way to 1980 due to its strong objection concerning the participation of Taiwan. During the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Beijing carried on with its habit of bringing politics into sports as it restrained tourism from South Korea’s organizing city. As following traditions is pretty important the habit continued in 2019 as well when China sanctioned the NBA Houston Rockets. Many Chinese businesses held off relations with the Rockets as a response to a tweet supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests sent by the American basketball team’s general manager Daryl Morey. His post said: “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”.

Another mystery is the case of the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai who disappeared after accusing Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier of China, of sexual assault. In her post she shared that she was invited to Gaoli’s home where she was coerced into sex. “That afternoon, I didn’t consent at first,” she wrote. “I was crying the entire time.”

China’s tennis star Peng Shuai source:

Minutes after her post had been shared her account was cancelled from the Chinese internet and Peng Shuai disappeared from the public view. Later, the editor of a newspaper controlled by the Communist Party shared videos of the tennis star appearing in public. However, concerns have emerged from the Women’s Tennis Association, the United States and other nations. They fear that Shuai is not able to communicate freely. Interestingly the talented sports star withdrew her accusation of sexual assault.

As much as the general public would like to think that sports are far from politics this daydream might need to end. Seeing the national colours worn by the highest ranked sports superstars awakens a strong feeling of nationalism, greater than the sensation achieved by music or literature. Watching them compete and score points can be interpreted as a “battle” between the countries where the more powerful one gains victory and the weaker loses. Sports are another way of showing how strong, prestigious a nation is, especially during the Olympics. The more successful the nation, the more influential it is in politics nationally and internationally. Sports and politics, the two go hand in hand.

As George Orwell once wrote: Sport is “war minus the shooting”.



Kálmán Csenge

Európai szakmai szekció tag

További elemzéseink