Impact Analysis Of Boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics

Amid conflict between the Chinese state and some of its corporate critics, activist groups around the world are forcing countries to consider a partial or full boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Here I explore the background, relevant history, and implications of boycotting the Olympics.

Jacob Winter
6 min readApr 5, 2021

What has recently been going on with Xinjiang (Chinese) cotton, international sanctions, and intensifying opinions on the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics?

Both Nike and clothing retailer H&M have experienced recent backlash regarding statements made about the alleged Chinese genocide of Uighur Muslims. Despite not sourcing cotton for its products from Xinjiang, H&M commented its worries with the use of forced labor to harvest cotton from this northwestern region of China (which produces about 20% of the global cotton supply). This September 2020 statement has since been taken down. Nike also confirmed the absence of Xinjiang cotton in their supply chain, but issued this statement that has ignited the recent retaliation. As a result, both companies have received significant negative response from the Chinese government, influencers, and citizens including public burning of Nike products and manipulation of online retail visibility.

The Uighur Muslim oppression was the primary motivator in a western-country coalition implementing sanctions on select Chinese officials. It is safe to say, however, the mounting concern regarding the strong-arming of “autonomous” Chinese regions (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, Xijiang) played a contributing role as well. One of the primary questions surrounding this international dispute is in regards to the impact of a Beijing-hosted 2022 Winter Olympics and the message this sends.

What are the basic arguments for and against boycotting the Beijing Olympics and what could a boycott look like?

Activists from all corners of the globe have called on their federal governments to stand up to China by interrupting benefits ensured by hosting one of the world’s largest athletic competitions. Either by countries opting not to participate in the Games or by moving them to a different host country, China would lose out on money generated through corporate partnerships, spectator spending, and other tributary factors. The CCP also would miss the opportunity provided by worldwide media coverage to influence their global image. The ability to present one’s country to the world with a controlled image and focus international attention on a major event presents a priceless opportunity to bury rising criticisms. Hitler and the Nazi party were afforded this opportunity in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Chinese spokespeople, as well as non-Chinese opponents of a boycott, offer that the Olympics provide a non-political opportunity for international cooperation. Another primary boycott-opposing point argues the athletes receive the brunt of the decision to boycott. To expand on the second point, despite the potential message sent by a boycott, China will still carry on how they like. Their market is too closely tied to the success of every other major country that, save a temporary drop in 2022 olympic-related economic projections, they will not lose long-term business from their major international markets. Essentially, a boycott will not have any lasting impacts on the criticized actions of China. This has been seen in the 2019 NBA-China conflict (NBA rolled over for China) and even specifically related to the above-referenced H&M statement. H&M issued this statement on March 31 essentially apologizing for the Xinjiang criticism in order to revive their relations with the Chinese market.

The chief boycotting proposals include a partial or complete boycott of the 2022 Games as well as the idea of finding a new host country. A partial boycott would likely involve limiting international spectatorship (already a COVID-related possibility) but allowing athletes to participate. If a country decides on a complete boycott, ideally no athletes or spectators of said country would be involved in the Games. A critical mass of countries agreeing on a full boycott could instigate a location change by the International Olympic Committee.

What have past Olympic boycotts looked like?

Historically there have been a wide range of reasons and extents of Olympic boycotts and country bans. The following non-exhaustive list covers the general idea of major Olympic-related conflicts:

  • Melbourne 1956 — Four European countries and three Middle Eastern countries boycott, response to Soviet invasion of Hungary and Suez Crisis (respectively). China also withdrew for the inclusion of Taiwan as a separate nation (returned 30 years later)
  • Tokyo 1964 — South Africa banned, related to apartheid
  • Montreal 1976–26 African countries boycott, response to New Zealand’s participation in South African rugby during apartheid
  • Moscow 1980–62 countries boycott, response to Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan
  • Los Angeles 1984–14 countries (including USSR) boycott, widely thought as retaliation for 1980

Boycotts have historically had varying impacts based on the size of the protest, among many other factors. Even without considering any sort of boycott, the Olympic Games have consistently proven extremely costly to the host country and almost universally incur budget over runs.

Despite the large influx of tourists to the host country and city, the costs of infrastructure and reactionary spending almost always outpace the revenues produced, sometimes monumentally. That being said, the impacts of a boycott tend to more heavily influence the political clout of a host country rather than their intended financial benefits.

This is not to say less tangible benefits cannot be found in the act of hosting. The creation of Olympics-related jobs does not typically increase job numbers long term. However, the opportunity to showcase one’s country does show correlation to increased tourism and economic benefit in subsequent years.

Finally, let’s take a look at China, its 2008 Olympics, and potential impacts of the 2022 Olympics.

Before being awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics just after the turn of the century, China’s economy was lagging behind the United States. At that time, China’s GDP was comparable to the other major developed countries. World Bank data (see below) shows a sharp uptick in growth right around the year 2000. While the general trend of the other GDP curves remain linear, China’s curve transforms into an exponential trend from 1960 to present day.

Serving as an Olympics host gave China global visibility at an opportune time when they were modernizing their economy. After this initial visibility, they had but to prove they could maintain themselves as a global superpower to continue their positive feedback loop of growth.

Looking toward the 2022 Beijing Olympics, China could use the opportunity to shift the global narrative around itself from human rights violations to international competition and cooperation. Although a boycott would not do much to hinder China’s economic standing or restrict its power as a major world player, it would keep the focus on an issue that many countries and groups around the world hope to keep in the spotlight. And often times it just takes these global issues remaining in the spotlight for long enough (and incremental sanctions, actions, etc.) for the offender to eventually yield.

Additionally, as Beijing has seen a slight but steady decline in tourism since the upward trend post-2008, a global display of the city and its draws would likely give its tourism numbers a shot in the arm. Amid global, pandemic-related, negative public opinion toward China, they could benefit from any sort of international tourism promotion as industry recovers from Covid-19 stagnation.

Although the world is starting to take action by imposing sanctions and labeling the events in Xinjiang as a genocide, will global leaders keep pressing on China? Will we see an unconventional Olympic Games in 2022? Boycott or not, interactions between major players leading up to these games will say a lot about international priorities.

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Jacob Winter

25-year-old exploring history, religion, & philosophy