When Sports and Foreign Policy Collide: Assessing the feasibility of a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics

The upcoming Winter Olympics will be hosted in Beijing, China’s capital. Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

The Olympics Return to the Capital

It is not wholly unusual for sports to serve as an arena for political discourse. In fact, over the last several years sports have been used to bring attention to social justice issues such as racial injustice, wealth inequality, and hunger and food insecurity. In the realm of foreign policy sports can either nurture diplomatic relations or exacerbate existing tensions; an extension of soft-power diplomacy. This article explores the feasibility and the importance of a Canadian boycott — and perhaps a wider boycott by the West — of the 2022 Winter Olympics in light of ongoing Sino-Canadian diplomatic tensions and increased scrutiny of China’s human rights record.

A Campaign of Repression

Canada’s relationship with China has remained relatively one-dimensional since relations were reopened in the 1970s as it has primarily focused on fostering bilateral trade and economic agreements. The abrupt detention of two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, on charges of espionage has led to the sharp deterioration of Sino-Canadian relations since late 2018. Their detention was presumably a retaliatory measure for the earlier arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wanzhou, by Canadian authorities in Vancouver. Ms. Meng is currently under house arrest in Vancouver while she awaits extradition proceedings that could see her extradited to the United States to stand trial for breaching American sanctions. The US Department of Justice claims Ms. Meng committed fraud by concealing Huawei’s relationship with a company, Skycom, to circumvent and violate US sanctions against Iran.

Map of Xinjiang. Photo Credits: Voice of America.

We Stand On Guard

China’s belligerent behaviour and flagrant violations of international norms should raise serious questions in foreign policy circles as to whether or not participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics would be appropriate. How feasible is a boycott of the Olympics? Can the federal government outright prohibit Canadian athletes from travelling abroad to participate in the tournament? The short answer is technically no however there is a historical precedent which can be used as a framework to guide the policy formulation process of a proposed boycott. In 1980 former Prime Ministers Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau affirmed Canada’s commitment to the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. The 1980 boycott was organized (albeit hastily) in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and concerns over its human rights record. An examination of the historical record reveals the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), the organization responsible for overseeing Canada’s involvement in the Olympics Movement, had initially opposed the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics but eventually reversed its decision and came to support it (admittedly under significant political and public pressure).

Canadian International Council Volunteer. A washed-up policy analyst trying to give readers an amateurish perspective of foreign affairs and politics.