The State Department’s recent statement regarding a potential boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics due to China’s alleged human rights abuses made headlines around the world. Though the agency later attempted to walk back its comments, they raised questions about the effectiveness and appropriateness of an Olympic boycott.
The Olympics have been linked to politics since their revival in 1896. I (along with attorney Deborah Low) have conducted detailed analyses of the boycotts that occurred in 1976, 1980 and 1984, and the International Olympic Committee’s bans of South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. We concluded that, while a nation can successfully carry out an ideological protest by boycotting the games, the accomplishment of a more substantive goal is far more difficult to achieve. The act of boycotting the Olympics therefore has limited benefits compared to the costs associated with doing so.
As the largest regularly held gathering of citizens from different parts of the world, the Olympics are an attractive target for political expression and activity. There are many ways in which the Olympic Games can and have been used as a venue for political action. The host city’s nation is always particularly vulnerable to political attacks, as was the case in 1908 when the United States delegation failed to tip the American flag to King George VI of the United Kingdom in protest of British rule and mistreatment of Ireland and its citizens.
Another such example occurred in 1924 when the Italians, angry due to a controversial French victory over an Italian fencer, marched out of the Closing Ceremonies in the Olympic Stadium in Paris singing the Fascist anthem.
The games were boycotted in 1956, 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988, and there have been numerous other threats of boycott, as well as controversy over the selection of the host city and the manner in which the host city uses the Olympic Games to showcase an unpopular regime or culture.
Protests of the pre-Olympic torch relay and Opening Ceremonies have occurred. Numerous nations have taken issue with the IOC over participation requirements, and nations have sought to have their enemies banned from the games. On a few occasions, when violations of the Olympic Charter have occurred, the International Olympic Committee has bowed to pressure and banned nations.
An analysis of political activity demonstrates two things: First, political activity at the Olympics is not insignificant and should not be ignored. In the wake of constant political interference, the games have become tainted in the eyes of many who view the event as nothing more than the continued political battles of powerful nations.
However, more often than not, the issues raised by the Olympic Games are not petty. Over the course of its history, apartheid, racism, World Wars, invasions, colonialism, and numerous other political and social issues have swirled around the games.
A politically neutral assessment of the objectives of the boycotting nations and/or their National Olympic Committees shows that international disputes that do not involve sports are rarely injected with success into the politics of the Olympic Games. A cost-benefit analysis of participating versus not participating in the games leads to the inexorable conclusion that it is virtually always better for a nation to participate.
History demonstrates that the political objectives sought by boycotting nations have not been attained with complete satisfaction. In 1976, the boycott failed to achieve New Zealand’s suspension from the Olympic Games, and to force nations to re-examine and ultimately end their sporting contacts with South Africa. New Zealand and many other nations retained sporting ties with South Africa despite the boycott.
The 1980 U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games had similarly disappointing results. Though the Soviet Union suffered financial and publicity setbacks, the limited success of these two goals came at a very high price for U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The games went on, and they were not tarnished for the athletes that competed — only for the athletes that were forced to boycott. Additionally, numerous American companies and organizations suffered significant financial losses in sponsorship revenues and contributions.
The Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Games saw equally limited success. The overwhelming sentiment was that Americans disliked the Soviets, so the nation was hardly dismayed that the Soviets were not in attendance. The private financing of the Los Angeles Games made the United States government and the city of Los Angeles impervious to financial losses, and the games posted an unprecedented profit. The Soviets also wanted to use the boycott to influence the presidential election and oust Ronald Reagan from power – but the success of the Olympics was instead incorporated into Reagan’s successful re-election bid.
In addition, the athletes who were forced to withdraw became the unwilling victims of politics. The fate of the athletes is truly lamentable in all three instances. These athletes trained hard for years only to have their dreams of Olympic participation denied by politicians seeking to use the games for political benefit. The fate of the athletes created negative publicity for the politicians who advocated the boycotts, further impairing their effectiveness.
As demonstrated by the 1976 boycott and experienced by anyone who has ever watched the Olympic Games, the power of seeing an athlete compete has an enormous and positive impact on the citizens of the athlete’s home country. Athletic heroes are inspiring; they promote patriotism and goodwill. Nations that boycott the Olympic Games do not get to reap the positive benefits that participation in the games can yield. For these reasons, it is apparent that boycotting the games yields limited political success, especially when compared to the potentially positive political outcome that could result from participating.
Scott Rosner is a professor of professional practice and the academic director of the Sports Management Program at Columbia University.
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