Maybe boycotts don't work, but that doesn't quite end the debate about the 2022 Olympics in China

The debate about whether Canadian athletes should boycott the winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in China in 2022, ultimately rests on a series of questions about the efficacy of such action, the morality of proceeding with the games and even who should get to decide whether or not to launch a boycott.

Some Canadian politicians are pushing for an Olympic response to China's actions

Visitors to Chongli, one of the venues for the 2022 Beijing Games, pass by the Olympics logo. A multi-party group of Canadian MPs have called for the Olympics to be relocated over reported human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

The debate about whether Canadian athletes should boycott the next winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in China in 2022, ultimately rests on a series of questions about the efficacy of such action, the morality of proceeding with the games and even who should get to decide whether or not to launch a boycott.

But if the Olympics do proceed with most of the world's nations represented, the question might then become whether its grand stage could be used to air the political and humanitarian concerns that now encircle the games.

Michael Chong, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, was perhaps the first Canadian politician to raise the possibility of a boycott when, on behalf of the Conservatives, he "strongly" urged the Liberal government last fall to "consider" such action in response to China's human rights violations, breaches of international law in Hong Kong and the arbitrary detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Green leader Annamie Paul and a multi-party group of 13 MPs have since called for the Olympics to be relocated, citing what the House of Commons subcommittee on international human rights described as China's genocide of its Uighur minority population.

With less than a year remaining until the scheduled start of the 2022 Olympics, relocation might be exceedingly difficult. At the very least, it would be expensive and complicated and some country, or perhaps a group of countries, would have to be willing to take on the significant cost and logistical challenge.

But the utility of a boycott is also being questioned.

"Boycotts don't work," the chief executives of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC) wrote in an op-ed published last week, pointing to the example of the United States-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

The boycott of 1980 was initiated by American president Jimmy Carter in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Carter gave the Soviets until Feb. 20, 1980 to leave Afghanistan or American athletes would not compete at the Olympics that July. The Soviet army didn't budge. 

In fact, the Soviets remained in Afghanistan for another nine years. As a result, Carter's stand is bitterly remembered as a failure.

There were at least two basic problems with Carter's boycott, according to Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, an historian at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War.

"One was; the whole premise of the boycott was flawed from the get go," he said.

Is boycotting best?

In addition to persuading the Soviets to vacate Afghanistan, a significant boycott was touted by one Washington Post columnist in January 1980 as a potentially significant blow to Soviet "prestige"; one that would resonate through Soviet society and challenge the legitimacy of Soviet power. In hindsight, those notions seem somewhat fanciful.

But the other issue was tactical; Carter didn't understand that national Olympic committees were independent from national governments. So while the Carter administration lobbied foreign governments, those governments did not have direct control over Olympic athletes.

In the end, 66 nations, including Canada, boycotted the 1980 Olympics. But athletes from 80 countries, including: Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Australia, did participate (though many of the participants from Western nations officially competed under the Olympic flag). 

Given that spotty precedent, it might be unfair to say that the 1980 Olympics proved the futility of an Olympic boycott. But it would still be fair to ask whether a mass walkout on the 2022 Olympics would have a real impact now.

Protesters hold Tibetan flags during a protest against Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in front of the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Jean-Christophe Bott/Keystone via AP)

On its own, a boycott by Canadian athletes probably wouldn't change the course of Chinese domestic or foreign policy, or bring the two Michaels home. Could a boycott involving perhaps the athletes of every Western democracy lead to real change? That seems at least very far from guaranteed. But maybe it would; particularly if it was part of a larger stand against Chinese aggression and abuse. 

But then it's not clear why political leaders should make the Olympics a central front in such a campaign. "There are more and better tools available to governments to inflict pain on the Chinese realm of foreign policy and world affairs," Sarantakes says.

The International Olympic Committee and its members could decide, on their own, to move, postpone or cancel the 2022 Olympics; just as they could be questioned about their refusal to do so. Even if a boycott was unlikely to change the course of history, there would still be a moral question about allowing the Olympics to take place in China at this moment. The Olympic movement might point to its ideals of peace and brotherhood, or insist that its choice of location does not imply an endorsement of a host's actions or policies. But it's not clear that any major sports institution can still be allowed to insist that it exists in an apolitical bubble.

In fact, when Carter proposed his boycott, he also suggested that the Olympics should be based out of a permanent site, perhaps in Greece; something that would have avoided future political debates about the location of the Olympics.

Governments have any number of options at their disposal to sanction or punish the actions of the Chinese regime; and it's not obvious why politicians should put boycotting the Olympics before any number of economic or political sanctions. Like Carter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could pressure or ask Canadian athletes to stay home. But Canadian athletes would be within their rights to ask why they, and not other Canadians or sectors of the economy, should be asked to make sacrifices.  As Shoemaker and O'Neill pointed out, trade, investment and education exchanges between Canada and China continue to take place.

Last year's conclusion to the regular season and playoffs of the National Basketball Association and the Women's National Basketball Association might offer another option. In the midst of incredible tumult across the United States, basketball games were played. But the players used that public forum to demonstrate and speak out about racial injustice and police violence.

If Canadian athletes spoke out in Beijing, would the COC and CPC support them?

Whatever the example of 1980 might be said to prove, these questions won't go away easily or soon.