History professor discusses historical Olympic boycotts ahead of 2022 Beijing Olympics
Gabrielle Beechert | Thursday, January 27, 2022
Notre Dame history professor John Soares gave a lecture Wednesday afternoon explaining the social and political reasons for the boycotting of past Olympic games, the impact of these boycotts and how these issues contextualize President Joe Biden’s diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — which are set to begin Feb. 4.
According to the Olympics’ official website, the goal of the Olympic Movement is to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
But the games themselves seem to be more complicated in practice than in theory. The Olympics, and the events that lead up to them, have repeatedly caused a host of social and political issues.
In his exploration of the Olympic boycotts of the 20th century, Soares noted three common issues in all boycotts: Dictatorships treated their opportunity to host the games as an endorsement of their politics; the generation of attention drawn to human rights violations in preparation for the Olympics; and the presence of politics in sports.
He drew evidence from five Olympic games of the 20th century: the 1936 games in Berlin, the 1968 games in Mexico City, the 1980 games in Moscow, the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul.
Soares explained there were numerous calls to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, otherwise known as the “Nazi Olympics.” But, there was international participation despite Hitler’s antisemitic and racist rhetoric.
The boycotts of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics had two components, Soares said. There was controversy regarding the use of resources allotted for the Olympics, as some believed they should have been used for other national issues. Mexican government officials then killed an unknown number of protesters during a boycott before the games in Tlatelolco. Second, during the games, African American track and field stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up their fists to represent black power and opposition to the games while on the Olympic podium.
In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter believed his efforts to promote Soviet cooperation had been ignored, Soares said. Carter had threatened to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics if the Soviets did not pull out of Afghanistan. When they did not, the U.S. and a few other countries did not go to Moscow.
Soares then continued down the timeline to explain that the relationship between the Americans and Soviets was still rocky during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. President Ronald Reagan wanted the Soviets to repair his image after he promoted anti-Soviet rhetoric, but the Soviets did not attend. They cited “safety and security reasons” as their reason for not attending, but it was still a boycott, according to Soares.
Finally, the Seoul Olympics took place in 1988, soon before the democratization of South Korea. Many believed that the Olympics promoted progress and improvement in the newly democratic country. But, according to Soares, most scholars concluded that democratization of South Korea occurred despite the Olympics, not because of them. The Olympics in Seoul put human rights abuses on display.
Now, President Biden is leading the American diplomatic boycott of the 2022 games in Beijing.
According to a press conference on Dec. 6, 2021, given by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, the diplomatic boycott entails the absence of “any diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing Winter Olympic Games and Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses. The athletes on team USA have our full support. We will be behind them 100 percent as we cheer them on from home. We will not be contributing to the fanfare of the games.”
Soares said one question remains: After reflecting on these past boycotts, where does that leave America with Biden’s diplomatic boycott?
According to Soares, there doesn’t seem to be a single, conclusive answer. Many people, including Soares himself at one point, question the boycott. They believe it is of weak taste for the scale of human rights abuses that the world is dealing with.
But, after grappling with Biden’s idea, Soares has found it to be a “reasonably attractive” way of handling the situation.
“He may have found a way to kind of thread the needle for that correct balance that will get Chinese attention without hurting his own people and without playing into narratives on the Beijing leadership that they’re being picked on unfairly,” Soares said.
Soares said he understands there is a fairly limited amount of external pressure that can be placed on the Chinese government. But, he said, he hopes this diplomatic boycott will send a strong enough message.
“I don’t think it’s going to be dramatic. I don’t think it’s going to be sweeping. I don’t think it’s going to be overnight. I don’t think the Beijing regime will ever publicly acknowledge it,” Soares said. “But maybe something like this will be nudging Chinese leaders in the right direction.”