'Boycotts don't work': Canada's Olympic, Paralympic leaders dismiss idea of skipping Beijing 2022

Despite human rights concerns that plague China, the heads of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee have dismissed the idea of a Canadian boycott of the 2022 Beijing Games.

Calls mount to forgo Games in light of human rights concerns plaguing China

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

With the next Winter Games in Beijing a year away, Canada's Olympic and Paralympic leaders are dismissing the idea of a Canadian boycott even though human rights issues continue to plague China.

In an editorial published in the Globe and Mail and La Presse on Thursday, both David Shoemaker, CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee, and Karen O'Neill, CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, left no room for doubt — Canadian athletes intend to compete in Beijing. The pair reiterated those thoughts in an interview with CBC Sports.

"We believe strongly in the power of sport," Shoemaker said via Zoom. "We thought it was important to put a stake in the ground and to say we think these Games are meaningful. 

"We have very serious concerns and share the concerns of others about what's going on in the host country, but we think our role here is to bring Team Canada to these Games, to be on full display, and be part of a conversation."

There have been mounting calls for a sweeping boycott of the Beijing Games in light of the persecution of ethnic minorities in the country's Xinjiang region as well as China's crackdown on pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong.

WATCH | David Shoemaker on why Canada won't boycott Beijing Olympics:

Canadian Olympic, Paralympic leaders dismiss Beijing 2022 Olympics boycott

3 years ago
Duration 11:39
David Shoemaker, chief executive officer and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee tells CBC News' Heather Hiscox that boycotts "do not work" and "it's important for us to be part of the conversation and be there" in China.

The international organization Human Rights Watch declared in its annual report that China is "in the midst of its darkest period for human rights since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989."

On Wednesday, a year out from the Beijing Olympics' opening ceremony, a coalition of 180 groups, including Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, Inner Mongolians and residents of Hong Kong opposed to the deterioration of human rights and increasing repression by the Xi Jinping-led Communist party, issued an open letter to governments around the world calling for a boycott.

From a Canadian perspective, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor have been detained in China on suspicion of espionage since 2018. This has substantially strained relations between the two countries.

Despite all this, the final declaration of the G20 summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in November, which was signed by the Canadian government, made no mention of support for an Olympic boycott as a means of redressing these issues.

"We look forward to the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022," it said.

And while the COC and CPC's declaration of intent to participate is meaningful, it is the federal government that can ultimately decide whether the nation's athletes will take part in an Olympics.

People hold signs calling for China to release Canadian detainees Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig during an extradition hearing for Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou in 2019. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

In Thursday's joint publication, both the COC and CPC point to the power of the Games to bring the world together and to advance the interests of the global community by celebrating Canadian performances and values on the international field of play. They conclude a boycott is not the answer to the problems China faces.

"The evidence is overwhelming that boycotts, especially through the singular lens of sport, do not work," O'Neill said. "It's important for our whole community, our athletes, coaches and support people who have been through so much lately to put this on the table. This is where we're at, here's what we're thinking, and here's where we stand in terms of how we're going to move forward."

Canadian member of the International Olympic Committee Dick Pound echoed the sentiments on Thursday.

"The Canadian Olympic Committee is not an instrument of the Canadian government and the Canadian athletes are not employees of the government," he said.

"It's counterintuitive that Olympic athletes should be the ones who pay the price for government dissatisfaction with Chinese conduct."

'Boycotts don't work'

Canada joined the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in opposition of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviets led an Eastern-bloc boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"This is not theoretical or academic, we have a history of knowing that boycotts don't work," Shoemaker said. "We are assured that our government is addressing this on a government-to-government basis as a high priority. There are myriad tools available to the government to deal with this diplomatically.

"We do not see the logic that as a first order of business to re-set the relationship with China, and to send a message, that we should in effect punish 300 athletes and boycott the Beijing Games."

Visitors to Chongli, one of the venues for the 2022 Beijing Games, pass by the Olympics logo. A coalition of 180 rights group on Wednesday called for a boycott of those Games tied to reported human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

When contacted, the athlete leaders of both the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic teams for Beijing 2022 applauded the pro-active approach taken by the COC and CPC regarding the question of a potential boycott.

"A boycott means turning our back on the situation. Let's instead have conversations and work towards solutions," said Catriona Le May Doan, the chef de mission for Team Canada in Beijing and a two-time Olympic speed skating champion. "The athlete's role will be to showcase Canadian values and help build bridges as they have always done."

Gold medal champion skier Josh Dueck will be Canada's chef de mission at the Paralympics in China.

"Now more than ever we need to engage athletes to empower people," Dueck said from his home in Vernon, B.C. "By asking athletes to withdraw from the Games we would take away their ability to compete but also to bring these difficult issues to light. That is unfair on both a personal and conversational level to the athletes."

The message is clear. The people who run international sport in this country believe it's far more prudent and responsible to attend the Games in Beijing than to stay home in protest.

"It's difficult, it's complex. In saying we think the right answer is that we go and compete in China, we're not saying that we minimize the significance of the issues that are coming to the fore," Shoemaker said.

"We think when faced with the choice between engaging and being part of a conversation, amplifying voices, and participating in these Games versus detaching, pulling back, distressing people and further polarizing around viewpoints, the choice becomes abundantly clear."

O'Neill agreed.

"Showing up, being part of the conversation, and some of the solutions that build bridges is the way forward in terms of sport thriving," she said. "Leading with a boycott of sport is just not the thing to do and historically has shown us that it will not move us to where we want to go."


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.

With files from CBC Sports

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now