US broaches boycott of Beijing Winter Olympics

The Biden administration has floated the idea of a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to protest against the persecution of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province. 

Ned Price, US state department spokesperson, said the boycott was one option “on the agenda” as the Biden administration discussed its approach to China and the Beijing Olympics with allies. 

Asked at a press briefing if the US was discussing a joint boycott, Price said: “It is something that we certainly wish to discuss . . . A co-ordinated approach will be not only in our interest, but also in the interest of our allies and partners.”

An official from a US ally said the Biden administration had raised the idea in preliminary talks about the Beijing Olympics on several occasions, as part of broader discussions about tackling China.

But the official stressed that there had been no detailed — or high-level — talks about how the allies would treat the event, or whether a boycott referred to government delegations or a move to stop athletes from taking part in the games. An official from a second US ally also said there had been some early discussions about a co-ordinated move.

China faces growing criticism over Xinjiang, where more than 1m Muslim Uighurs have been detained in internment camps. President Joe Biden last week formally labelled the Chinese policy in Xinjiang as “genocide” in his state department’s annual report on human rights. 

After his remarks, Price wrote on Twitter that “we don’t have any announcement regarding the Beijing Olympics” and that the event was “a ways off”. A state department official disputed that Price had said the US had discussed a boycott. “We have not discussed and are not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners,” the official said. 

The Olympics have come under scrutiny as the US and its allies have taken an increasingly tough stance over Beijing’s repressive actions in Xinjiang. The US last month imposed co-ordinated sanctions with the EU, UK and Canada on Chinese officials involved in setting policy towards Xinjiang, sparking retaliation from Beijing. 

John Katko, the top Republican on the House homeland security committee, said the Biden administration’s move underscored the “untenable reality” of holding the games in China.

“The world is watching our next move,” Katko said. “It’s time to move the Olympics to a country that embodies democracy and the spirit of the Olympic charter. The games just cannot be held in China.”

The US Olympic & Paralympic Committee on Monday said it opposed any boycott. “They have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues,” it said. “We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and geopolitical issues.” 

The last US team boycott was of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The USOPC took the decision after pressure from Congress. The US also held a diplomatic boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to which Barack Obama did not send an official delegation.

The USOPC said Sarah Hirshland, its chief executive, had talked to the Biden administration about the status of preparations for the Tokyo Olympics this summer but it was unclear if they discussed the Beijing Games. The International Olympic Committee, which oversees both events, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games has meant that preparations for both events are occurring simultaneously. The Beijing Olympics are scheduled to open in February 2022. 

Sports governing bodies have been forced to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic in the lead up to both Olympics, in some cases postponing or rescheduling qualifying events.

In the US, which regularly sends one of the largest teams to the Summer and Winter Games, many sports determine their delegations through team trials, such as those for swimming and athletics. International travel restrictions have also made it tougher for athletes in some sports, such as figure skating, to take part in global competitions ahead of the Beijing Games. 

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