Do boycotts of sporting events, such as the Beijing Winter Olympics, work?


SPORTS BOYCOTTS are almost as old as the sport itself. In 332 BC, the city of Athens threatened to withdraw from the ancient Olympics over allegations of match-fixing against one of its athletes. In modern times, boycotts have tended to be politically motivated. On December 6, America declared that its diplomats would not attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, to protest China’s human rights violations against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, although that American athletes always participate. The Chinese government called the announcement “pure political demagoguery”. Is America making an empty gesture? Or can boycotts be effective?

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Boycotts are generally intended, at least in theory, to push governments to effect some kind of political or social change, or to shame them. They rarely achieve much. On the one hand, many threatened boycotts end up fizzling out. Before the Berlin Olympics in 1936, several countries were considering retiring rather than being guests of the German Nazi regime. In the end, 49 participated – the most at any Olympics so far. More recently, boycotts have been raised by Great Britain and Germany ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Russia in 2018. No team has remained on the sidelines.

Even widely observed and repeated boycotts often have little effect. Consider the mass sports stays of the Cold War era. In 1980 America and 66 other countries and territories chose not to attend the Moscow Olympics, most in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, along with other countries in the Eastern Bloc, retaliated by boycotting the Summer Games in Los Angeles four years later. Neither gesture changed the dynamics of the Cold War; they simply denied dozens of glorious athletes. And some athletes went to Moscow despite the official boycott of their country. Likewise, the frequent refusals by Arab countries and Iran to compete against Israeli athletes have done little to resolve the Palestinian conflict.

But sometimes boycotts can work. The strongest support among them comes from the anti-apartheid movement. For more than three decades, white-ruled South Africa was a sports pariah. It was banned from all Olympics between 1964 and 1992 (largely because of pressure from other countries rather than on the initiative of the International Olympic Committee). And his participation in other sports such as rugby and cricket was severely restricted. Many political scientists believe that this sporting isolation contributed to the fall of the regime. According to a study published in “How Sanctions Work”, a book, this created pressure for change; another, in the Contemporary history review, suggests that he has undermined white racial ideology.

There are several reasons why this boycott worked where others failed. For starters, he was sustained over time, long enough to harm his target: the white South African rulers, who cherished sport, rugby and cricket in particular. Almost 75% of white South Africans in 1990 said they felt strongly the impact of the sports boycott, according to a poll. The boycotters’ demands were also clear and specific, such as expanding sport participation to all races. And most importantly, they were complemented by a strong civil society movement in South Africa and other sanctions, including economic sanctions, from abroad, which put significant pressure on the country.

On its own, the boycott of the Beijing games by US diplomats may appear to be little more than symbolic. Other countries could follow the US lead, amplifying negative publicity about China’s human rights abuses and undermining its efforts to use games to bolster its ‘soft power’ on a global scale. . Uyghur groups abroad will rejoice. But nothing will change in their homeland.

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