‘Diplomatic boycott’ meaning explained: Can US athletes still compete?

Bruno Cooke December 7, 2021
‘Diplomatic boycott’ meaning explained: Can US athletes still compete?
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The Biden administration has announced a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics – to which Beijing has “threatened unspecified resolute countermeasures”, Reuters reports – but what does this mean in practical terms? Can US athletes still compete at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

What is the meaning of a ‘diplomatic boycott’?

The White House’s decision to enact a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Winter Olympics means US government officials won’t attend the event.

A diplomatic boycott is different to a full boycott. Numerous full boycotts have occurred in Olympic history. In 1976, for example, led by Congolese official Jean-Claude Ganga, 29 African countries boycotted the Montreal Games in protest at New Zealand’s sporting links with South Africa.

In 1980, the US led a 66-country boycott of the Moscow Games in protest at the 1979 Soviet–Afghan War. Many of the countries that boycotted participated in the Liberty Bell Classic in Philadelphia instead. 

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Can US athletes still compete in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics despite ‘diplomatic boycott’?

Yes. A diplomatic boycott refers only to diplomats, not athletes. It leaves athletes free to travel to Beijing to compete.

“Diplomatic or official representation,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing yesterday, “would treat these games as business as usual. We simply can’t do that.”

“Standing up for human rights”, Psaki claimed, “is in the DNA of Americans.”

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In May 2021, Associated Press reported a “coalition” of human rights groups “representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, residents of Hong Kong and others” called for a full boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, “eschewing lesser measures” such as diplomatic boycotts.

Read the full statement from Boycott Beijing 2022 here.

What will happen next?

AP reports Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing: “If the US side is bent on going its own way, China will take firm countermeasures.”

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The Uyghur Human Rights Project applauded the White House’s decision not to send diplomatic or official representatives to Beijing for next year’s Olympic Games.

What a diplomatic boycott means in the long term, however, remains unclear. Especially as there appears to be no precedent for diplomatic boycotts of the Olympic Games.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.