Joe Biden is said to be considering a “diplomatic boycott” of the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year and the idea is reportedly being discussed in Downing Street. Sporting boycotts are a long-standing method of demonstrating disapproval for a regime or its nefarious activities but they are not easy to organise.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin went ahead despite the anti-Semitic policies of the host nation. The 1980 Games in Moscow were shunned by the US in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but while the British government supported the boycott it left a final decision to the athletes, many of whom attended. The Soviet Union and its satellites refused to turn up in Los Angeles in 1984 in retaliation. During the apartheid years sporting contact with South Africa was discouraged and teams that went to play risked running the gauntlet of protest and opprobrium.
When the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008 there were hopes that China was anxious to take its place among the comity of nations, still a communist dictatorship but one the West could work and trade with. But Xi Jinping’s apparent determination to turn himself into the new Mao has dashed that prospect.
China’s Belt and Road initiative is now regarded as a form of aggressive neo-imperialism. Military expansionism, genocide of the Uyghurs, the crackdown in Hong Kong and sabre-rattling against Taiwan are the backdrop for the Winter Games. But a diplomatic boycott is a cop out. The absence of a few dignitaries will not impair the ability of Chinese leaders to use the Games for propaganda purposes. The West needs a proper strategy for dealing with Beijing, not gestures.