This weekend, upon hearing the Biden administration’s bold move to announce a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics, I was thinking about the halcyon days of late 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, only to be met by the fierce international response of a U.S. boycott of the next year’s Summer Games in Moscow. Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviets cowered in the face of such a firm display of disapproval, and within weeks, the Soviets had left Afghanistan in one of the last great foreign policy achievements of the Carter administration.
What, what? Really?
Ok, so apparently this is less a major historical turning point and more a dream I, or possibly Jimmy Carter, had Sunday night. The tip-off should have been the words “great foreign policy achievements” and “Carter administration” in the same sentence. In reality, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, in which we led a coalition of several dozen countries that stayed home that July, had the following direct impact: The USSR won a then-record 80 gold medals on home soil, and 195 medals overall, which remains the second highest single-Games total in history. Quite the propaganda coup for the Politburo.
What the boycott did not do: Compel the Soviets to leave Afghanistan. Instead, a protracted war of attrition lasted nine more years, resulting in a massive refugee crisis, the rise of some Mujahideen fighter named Osama bin Laden, and, according to some estimates, as many as 2 million deaths. So, maybe not the exact outcome the U.S. was looking for. On the plus side, the Soviets implemented their own boycott four years later when the Games were in Los Angeles, and the lack of competition enabled the Americans to kick some major butt as long as you didn’t work for McDonald’s.
I bring this up because as tensions between the U.S. and China remain high, it’s worth thinking about what this brave decision to take a stand will actually do. I am no stranger to the fact that the Olympics are as much a political dog and pony show as they are an athletic one. Seriously. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on comparative nationalism at the 1936 and 1972 Summer Games in Germany, which ended up being, uh, sort of political, so this is something I know at least a little bit about.
Given that background, I feel pretty confident in telling you exactly what the U.S. can expect to achieve from this, which is absolutely nothing. In fact, the almost certain retaliatory response from China may put the relationship between our two nations even further behind the shotput than it already is.
To be clear, the impetus for this boycott is no trivial thing. The treatment of Uyghars in Xinjiang Province is a legitimate huminatrian crisis that could very well constitute genocide depending on your definition. It would be disingenuous of me to claim expertise on that front, which I say not as an excuse to keep one’s head in the sand, but because it is honest. From what I’ve read, the crisis is very much an affront to our common humanity, and it’s one that calls for a provocative international response. My point is merely that if you truly want the Chinese to be influenced by actions of the international community, this response ain’t the one that will do it.
A boycott, historically, has done little else but pave the road to the medal stand for the very host nation you’re looking to shame. A diplomatic boycott is peanuts by comparison, and you don’t need to take my word for it. Just talk to the Chinese. Shortly after the boycott was announced, the spokesman for China’s U.S. embassy tweeted that “[N]o one would care about whether these people come or not, and it has no impact whatsoever on the #Beijing2022 to be successfully held.” The response from Chinese state media? “No one invited them anyway.”
Obviously, it’s easy to say these responses are proof that China actually does care about the boycott, but these statements also aren’t wrong. No one watched the Tokyo Games so they could catch a glimpse of Jill Biden at the Opening Ceremony, and Jared and Ivanka were not the reason I tuned in for the Winter Games in PyeongChang. If you’re watching the Olympics, you’re doing so for the pageantry and the competition. Saving the tax-payer dollars required to send a delegation to Beijing won’t change that.
Lest you think I’m indifferent, I am not saying that there is never a point in making a firm political stand for a righteous cause. History is not changed by those on the sidelines. But I do believe in using empirical data as a guide when you have it, which is why I believe trickle-down economics is nonsense and Northwestern football will only ever disappoint me. On this particular subject, we have plenty of evidence of what impact an Olympic boycott has on the boycotted, and the answer is basically a big ol’ shrug.
If you really want to make a point, threaten or take actions that have real teeth. For example, considering some of the reasonably-famous brands that are official Olympic partners, pressure multinational companies to pull out of sponsorship deals with the IOC if it hosts the games in politically fraught places. Follow the lead of the WTA and build a coalition of IOC members that force the games to be moved to a previous host with existing facilities. Or even better, change the USOC logo to a big picture of Winnie the Pooh with his head stuck in a honeypot.
I recognize that these suggestions could be considered politically infeasible, but if you want to really send a message, you have to go big. Anything less is the equivalent of swatting away gnats for a country that routinely makes dissidents disappear.
Maybe we don’t have the time and alliances to make that happen, but the path we chose isn’t the projection of strength the White House is hoping it is. It’s almost as if the Carter administration is making the decisions again. After all, Jimmy was an expert on peanuts.
Photo credit: https://www.cnn.com/2012/08/07/sport/olympics-2012-moscow-boycott-1980-don-paige/index.html