• Lauren Di Lella

The U.S. Boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics


Last month the Biden Administration announced its decision to diplomatically boycott the 2022 Winter Olympic Games set to take place in Beijing, China this February. President Biden decided this after the Chinese government faced accusations of genocide and human rights violations against its Uyghur population and other ethnic and religious minority groups. [2] The decision also came at a time when the Chinese government was under scrutiny for its handling of the disappearance of Peng Shuai, a professional tennis player who went missing after making sexual assault allegations against a high-level Chinese government official. [3]

President Biden made it clear that the U.S. would not send government officials to the Olympics or participate in “fanfare” but would allow its athletes to compete and support them in doing so. [4] Despite the need to send a message to China that the U.S. does not condone such atrocities, President Biden recognized that many of these athletes have been training for years and believed it would be unfair to penalize them by boycotting the Olympics entirely. [5]

Politicians from both sides of the political spectrum have come down against President Biden for this decision. While there is general bipartisan support for a U.S. boycott, numerous lawmakers believe a diplomatic boycott will have no real impact and the U.S. could send a stronger message to the Chinese government by fully boycotting the Games. [6]

The last time the U.S. fully boycotted the Olympics was during the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. [7] The U.S. Olympic Committee was under pressure from the Carter administration to bar athletes from competing in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. [8] In addition to a full boycott, President Carter placed an embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union and increased the U.S. military budget. [9] Although these measures had little effect on Soviet foreign policy in Afghanistan, over 60 countries followed in the U.S. boycott which sent a powerful message of democratic alignment and global unity during the Cold War. [10]

Those criticizing President Biden’s diplomatic boycott have referenced the meaningful impact that resulted from the full boycott in 1980. Currently, few countries have followed suit in the boycott of the 2022 Winter Games. [11] The European Union is split on the issue; Great Britain remains loyal to the U.S., but France is sending diplomats to Beijing because it opposes using sports competitions to highlight human rights concerns. [12]

Importantly, a diplomatic boycott results in little or no actual consequence for China. China receives the full economic benefit of hosting the Olympics since there will be broad international athletic participation, and the U.S. remains one of China’s largest trading partners, accounting for nearly $1.9 trillion worth of imports and exports. [13] Many believe if the U.S. wanted to send a more powerful message to the Chinese government it would boycott the Olympics entirely or utilize other legal means, such as taxation or placing restrictions on trade with China.

Another question raised by this debate is whether sporting events are appropriate venues for geopolitical statements. Some political leaders, such as the French President, believe sports should not be politicized, especially when it is unlikely it will lead to any tangible change. [14] Others believe the publicity and attention surrounding large sporting events make them attractive avenues for political activism. [15] In the U.S. there have been more recent examples of professional athletes using athletic events as forums to advocate for political change. It is interesting to note, however, that even top athletes who have publicly condemned the Chinese government’s human rights abuses plan to compete at the Games. [16]

The debate over the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics shines a light on the complexities that arise when international sporting events become a platform to influence geopolitics. As the largest and most popular sporting event globally, there is a legitimate question of whether a U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics goes far enough to bring international attention to the human rights abuses in China.


[1] Jacob Fromer, Lawmakers Press US Corporate Sponsors of Beijing Winter Olympics, Saying Diplomatic Boycott on Games is not Enough, US-China Relations (10 Dec. 2021), https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3159128/diplomatic-boycott-not-enough-lawmakers-press-us-corporate-sponsors.

[2] Allie Malloy, White House Announces US Diplomatic Boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, CNN (6 Dec. 2021), https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/06/politics/us-diplomatic-boycott-winter-olympics/index.html.

[3] Bindu Bansinath, What we Know About the Disappearance of Peng Shuai, The Cut (20 Dec. 2021), https://www.thecut.com/2021/12/the-disappearance-of-peng-shuai-what-we-know.html

[4] Ellen Nakashima, In Pointed Snub, no U.S. Government Official will Attend Beijing Winter Olympics, The Washington Post (6 Dec. 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/us-beijing-winter-olympics-diplomatic-boycott/2021/12/06/1d2e9920-56b1-11ec-9a18-a506cf3aa31d_story.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Robin Brant, US Diplomats to Boycott 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, BBC (7 Dec. 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-59556613.

[7] David Wharton, The Ugly Side to China Hosting the Olympics has Taken Center Stage. What Next?, Los Angeles Times (26 Dec. 2021), https://www.latimes.com/sports/olympics/story/2021-12-26/human-rights-china-ioc-2022-beijing-olympics-peng-shuai.

[8] Nakashima, supra.

[9] Edward Walsh, Carter Stands by Deadline on Boycott of Olympics, The Washington Post (20 Feb. 1980), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/02/20/carter-stands-by-deadline-on-boycott-of-olympics/e6662479-3fe4-41bb-bfa1-123e76f76d52/.

[10] Victor Mather, The Diplomatic Boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, Explained, The New York Times (5 Jan. 2022). https://www.nytimes.com/article/diplomatic-boycott-olympics.html.

[11] Laura Kelly, Allies are Split on Biden’s Diplomatic Boycott of Beijing Olympics, The Hill (26 Dec. 2021), https://thehill.com/policy/international/587092-allies-are-split-on-bidens-diplomatic-boycott-of-beijing-olympics.

[12] Id.

[13] United States Census Bureau, These Are America’s Top Trading Partners, CNN (2017), https://money.cnn.com/interactive/news/economy/how-us-trade-stacks-up/index.html#:~:text=U.S.%20trade%20with%20other%20nations,worth%20of%20imports%20and%20exports.

[14] Wharton, supra.

[15] Joshua Barajas, ‘Sport is Political.’ How Athletes are Keeping Human Rights Center Stage at the Olympics, PBS (Aug. 2021), https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/sport-is-political-how-athletes-are-keeping-human-rights-center-stage-at-the-olympics.

[16] Mather, supra.