Do boycotts of sports events, such as the Beijing winter Olympics, work? – The Economist

SPORTING BOYCOTTS are almost as old as sport itself. In 332 BC, the city of Athens threatened to withdraw from the ancient Olympics because of allegations of match-fixing against one of its athletes. In modern times boycotts have tended to be prompted by politics. On December 6th America said its diplomats would not attend the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in protest against China’s human-rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Australia followed suit, although both countries’ athletes will still take part. The Chinese government has dismissed the announcement as “pure political grandstanding”. Is America making an empty gesture? Or can boycotts be effective?
A daily newsletter with the best of our journalism
Boycotts are usually intended, at least in theory, to press governments into making some sort of political or social change—or to shame them. They rarely achieve much. For one thing, many boycotts that are threatened end up fizzling out. Before the Berlin Olympics in 1936, several countries considered withdrawing rather than be guests of Germany’s Nazi regime. In the end 49 took part—the most at any Olympics until then. More recently, boycotts were mooted by Britain and Germany in the build-up to the football World Cup in Russia in 2018. No teams stayed away.
Even widely observed and repeated boycotts often have little effect. Consider the mass sporting stayaways of the cold-war era. In 1980 America and 66 other countries and territories chose not to go to the Moscow Olympics, most in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, along with other Eastern-bloc countries, retaliated by boycotting the summer games in Los Angeles four years later. Neither gesture changed the dynamics of the cold war; they merely denied scores of athletes sporting glory. And some athletes went to Moscow despite their countries’ official boycott. Similarly, the frequent refusals of Arab countries and Iran to compete against Israeli athletes have done little to resolve the Palestinian conflict.
But sometimes boycotts can work. The most powerful endorsement of them comes from the anti-apartheid movement. For more than three decades, white-ruled South Africa was a sporting pariah. It was banned from all Olympics between 1964 and 1992 (largely because of pressure from other countries rather than on the International Olympic Committee’s initiative). And its participation in other sports such as rugby union and cricket was severely restricted. Many political scientists believe this sporting isolation contributed to the regime’s downfall. According to one study in “How Sanctions Work”, a book, it created pressure for change; another, in the Journal of Contemporary History, suggests it undermined white racial ideology.
There are several reasons why this boycott worked where others had failed. For a start, it was sustained over time, long enough to hurt its intended target: white South African leaders, who cherished sport—rugby and cricket especially. Nearly 75% of white South Africans in 1990 said they felt the impact of the sporting boycott strongly, according to one poll. The demands from the boycotters were also clear and specific, such as widening participation in sports to all races. And most important, they were supplemented by a strong civil-society movement within South Africa and other sanctions, including economic penalties, from abroad, which exerted significant pressure on the country.
American diplomats’ boycott of the games in Beijing may, then, appear to be little more than symbolic. Other countries may follow America’s example, amplifying negative publicity about China’s human-rights abuses and undermining its efforts to use the games to boost its “soft power” globally. Uyghur groups abroad will welcome this. But nothing will change in their homeland.
Editor’s note (December 8th 2021): This article has been updated since it was first published.
More from The Economist explains:
Why have prices of cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, fallen—again?
Why the rich world is facing a hiring problem
Why are eastern European countries cosying up to Taiwan?
A daily newsletter with the best of our journalism
Virtual coins are especially vulnerable when investors get nervous
A disappointing month for jobs growth in America adds to concern about the pace of recovery
They see the self-governing island as an ideological ally—and as a strategic partner
Virtual coins are especially vulnerable when investors get nervous
A disappointing month for jobs growth in America adds to concern about the pace of recovery
They see the self-governing island as an ideological ally—and as a strategic partner
The weather pattern is back for a second consecutive year
It would be expensive, require co-operation with France and may push the most determined migrants to even more deadly routes
Published since September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
Copyright © The Economist Newspaper Limited 2021. All rights reserved.

source


0Shares

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.