The West’s diplomatic boycott of Winter Olympics is gold-medal hypocrisy

Dec 17, 2021
Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics
A diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics will make no difference to China's policies. (Image: AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

This petty action squanders an opportunity for positive engagement and is rooted in a sense of anxiety about the rise of a non-Western nation.

As sure as night follows day, the West has begun its campaign to undermine and discredit China by pursuing a diplomatic boycott of an international sporting event: the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. This happens every time the West loses a bid to one of its “enemies”, seeking instead the guaranteed security of the moral high ground. 

Rather than use these wonderful global events to bring humanity together — despite inevitable differences between nations — and leverage diplomacy when goodwill can be at an all-time high, Western governments and media choose to be the bearer of sour grapes. They seek to spoil the mood for a world craving positive developments and unity, while imagining they can also fool the international community into thinking they have the interests of a greater global good at heart.

The reality is that the world — and even the West’s own jaded populations — recognises this formula. It is simply an embarrassment and diminishes the standing of the West in the eyes of the global majority. Athletes around the world resent being treated like meaningless pawns by self-serving politicians. Their actions also squander opportunities to build much-needed understanding and cooperation in a multi-polar world. Imagine what the world would gain if the US and its Western allies used the Winter Olympics to engage with China constructively on the issues where their differences are deep and raw. 

Anyone even with a little understanding of Chinese or Asian culture is aware that giving China “face” at an event such as the Olympics can be a game-changer in terms of altering the diplomatic mood and can thus be the basis for genuinely productive discussions. It would win so much goodwill from China that a great deal could be achieved at the negotiating table and thus for the international community. 

Imagine too if the Beijing Winter Olympics were used to hold a high-level, cordial and good-spirited summit between the leaders of the US, China and Russia. If you have to mix politics with sport, then this is how to do it. But that would be beyond the pale for the West as it cannot stomach the thought of such a PR coup for others, especially the Chinese. To play any part — even for the good of the world at this moment in history — in allowing China to be recognised and respected by the world for its achievements would be intolerable. And yes, all the political pundits in the West will pontificate on the various geopolitical equations at play to explain why this is not possible and even naive. 

But the sad truth is that it is sheer pettiness rooted in a sense of superiority and deep-seated anxiety about the rise of a non-Western nation. After all, if you have no desire to seek solutions because your goals are about widening a rift driven by policies that are based on the fear of losing your hegemonic power, and even an innate sense of racial superiority, then you simply use every opportunity to be a spoiler, even if that means being petty.

Moreover, these tactics are invariably led by the Anglosphere: the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand have all diplomatically boycotted the Games, the very same members of the race-based Five Eyes alliance, four of which are white settler nations with a history rooted in white supremacy. This group of countries seem to want to control the international yardstick of what is considered morally acceptable despite their track record — and when other nations supposedly fail to meet the double standards they set, the yardstick becomes a cudgel to beat an ethical gradient into existence between the righteous West and the uncivilised rest.

This has been practised for decades. For example, Western interactions with Russian sporting events and sportspeople have been a source of constant tension. Another is the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is for the first time being hosted in the Middle East, in Qatar, and has faced continual allegations of humanitarian shortcomings from Western commentators and politicians. That drumbeat of righteousness with regard to the World Cup will only get louder after the Winter Olympics as another platform is sought, this time not to embarrass a competitor but to remind the world of the moral authority of the West. Wait for it.

But after the West’s indignation at Beijing and Qatar, the world will be spared pious posturing for at least a decade, given that the next Olympics and FIFA World Cups will be hosted by France and the US. As such, there will be no major media discussion about France’s maltreatment of its migrants (entitled “Enforced Misery” by Human Rights Watch) or the hundreds who have drowned in the English Channel. There will be no mention of France’s atrocities in former colonies and the fact that as many as 29 African nations are still pursuing reparations for crimes (just imagine the Western media response if China, India or Saudi Arabia had 29 countries taking legal action against them).

As for the US, there will be no calling out of the dire condition of America’s migrant camps on the border with Mexico (including disease and sexual abuse), or how California has its prison population – mainly racial minorities – performing “slave-like labour”, or its grisly use of torture (a human rights abuse) at Guantanamo Bay. No commentators will cite the fact that the US has been at war 226 out of 244 years since 1776, or the war crimes it has committed during its invasions including most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor will there be talk about the tens of thousands of Iranian children who died due to sanctions imposed by the US, which flout international law. 

Nor will there be a righteous examination of America’s history of systemic racism against its sportspeople — still alive and well — or its suppression of journalism and freedom of speech, for example the decade-long attempt at extraditing Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, to the US to face trial, which was just granted by the British Court of Appeal.

Yet the topics of racism and freedom of speech are fervently placed under the microscope when international sporting events are held in non-Western nations. Imagine the media frenzy this week if Assange was Chinese and had released reports on China — he would be hailed as a global hero by governments and media alike. It was interesting to see how mainstream Western media like the BBC and CNN did not take the side of a fellow journalist, but instead toed the line of their governments and even insinuated that Assange was involved in espionage.  

Lastly — to draw comparisons to the case of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, which was a trigger for the diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics — there will be no mention of the fact that US and French presidents have a history of womanising and affairs, and some even of sexual abuse (former US president Donald Trump has faced 25 accusations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment alone), and that no other country responded to these allegations with boycotts of international sporting events despite how the victims were treated and silenced. Instead, everything will be calm and the Western media will be in celebration mode.

There is always place in sport for politics and social justice. But there is a pattern to the Western boycotting of international sporting events, and it is another example of global inequity and how global white privilege works. What is also most interesting — and has never been so clearly on display — is the apparent “collusion” between Western governments and the Western media, who seem to put their political differences aside when it comes to demonising their public enemy number one: China.

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