The political dispute over a new election law in the southern state of Georgia has broadened into a debate over whether the United States should participate in a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.
On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged the U.S. will discuss with allies whether to jointly boycott the games to protest Beijing’s repression of minorities and major human rights abuses.
“A coordinated approach will be not only in our interest but also in the interest of our allies and partners,” he told reporters at a daily briefing. But he stressed that no final decision has been reached.
China Warns Washington Not to Boycott Winter Olympics
Human rights groups are protesting China’s hosting of the games, due to start in February 2022
The administration signaled a willingness to consider such a move shortly after conservative Republicans demanded that President Joe Biden justify U.S. participation in the games.
The Republican lawmakers were annoyed with Biden’s support for a protest against the Georgia law, including Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, and claimed the administration was being hypocritical by not boycotting the Olympics.
Activists around the world have been demanding that countries boycott the Beijing Games to protest the country’s domestic policies, including what the U.S. State Department has called the “genocide” of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province and its crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
While there has been some discussion of the possibility of the U.S. boycotting the Winter Olympics or limiting participation, the issue hasn’t had much salience until now.
There appears to be a growing effort to change that after Biden said in an interview last week with the sports television channel ESPN that he would back Major League Baseball’s decision to move its annual All-Star Game out of Georgia in response to the state’s new election statute.
In the wake of surprising Democratic victories in the general election and in two Senate runoff elections — the latter of which gave Democrats complete control of Congress — Georgia’s heavily Republican legislature passed a raft of measures changing the state’s voting laws.
While there is debate about how restrictive the rules are, the general consensus is that some elements of the law will make it more difficult to vote in the state’s urban areas, which are racially diverse and skew Democratic, and will widen access in rural and predominantly white areas that favor Republicans.
Widespread anger at the law’s impact on minority voters was led in part by highly visible professional athletes. So last week, when Biden sat down for the ESPN interview, he was asked his opinion on what was then only the possibility that Major League Baseball would move the All-Star Game.
“I think today’s professional athletes are acting incredibly responsibly,” Biden said. “I would strongly support them doing that.”
Two days later, when the league announced it would shift the All-Star Game out of Atlanta to Denver, Colorado, the condemnation on the political right was swift. Amid the complaints about “cancel culture” and “wokeness,” a number of conservative commentators and elected officials coalesced around the demand that Biden justify U.S. participation in the Olympics, given the Chinese government’s treatment of its own people.
“When Joe Biden decides to boycott the Olympics in China, where the Communist Chinese regime is committing genocide, then he can weigh in on Georgia,” Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee wrote on Twitter.
“We can’t wait to see what the U.S. President is going to say about China’s voting rules,” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote. “There are no lines at polling places in the Middle Kingdom, because there are no polling places, no absentee ballot controversies because there are no ballots. … Perhaps Mr. Biden can compare the voting rules in Georgia to those in the re-education camps in Xinjiang province.”
The Journal’s editors say they do not support a boycott, even as they demand Biden explain why he isn’t calling for one.
However, there has also been a chorus of opposition to full U.S. participation in the Beijing Games among conservative lawmakers for several years. Recommended actions have included everything from a full-blown boycott to a more limited “diplomatic boycott” that would see a junior member of the Biden administration heading the U.S. delegation to the games, rather than the president or vice president.
Last month, Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was president and CEO of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, called for a combined economic and diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter games. In a New York Times op-ed, he wrote, “Let us demonstrate our repudiation of China’s abuses in a way that will hurt the Chinese Communist Party rather than our American athletes: reduce China’s revenues, shut down their propaganda, and expose their abuses.”
Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University and author of four books about the politics of the Olympics, said, “A lot of the arguments for boycotting the games, or moving them, have actually emerged out of Republican circles. (Florida Senator) Marco Rubio, for example, has been on top of it for a long time, as has (Congressman) Christopher Smith in New Jersey.”
“Here in the United States, China has become sort of an all-purpose, bipartisan political punching bag. And so, Democrats also have been speaking out a lot about China in general, and then more recently about this idea of the possibility of boycotting the Olympics. So, there’s bipartisan support for considering the possibility.”
Some experts, however, believe there is little likelihood of anything more than the limited diplomatic boycott taking place.
Victor A. Matheson, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Boston who studies the economics of sports, said that historically, Olympic boycotts have been very unpopular within the country doing the boycotting because “athletes lose the opportunity to compete, and in many sports, this is your only opportunity to monetize your perhaps decades of work.”
He added, “I would be very surprised if we boycotted. It would be, I think, very politically difficult for Biden, mainly because so many Americans, their hearts really do go out to the athletes themselves, who would miss this opportunity.”
But the fact that the discussion is taking place might be a sign that in the future, human rights abuses could become a major consideration when international organizations are considering bids to host major events.
Boykoff said Major League Baseball’s actions in Georgia and the calls to boycott the Beijing Games might be part of a larger trend. While the complexities of derailing the Winter Olympics are orders of magnitude greater than those of moving a single baseball game, he said, he sees them as part of a “larger zeitgeist.”