In 332 B.C., an Athenian pentathlete named Callippus was caught bribing his rivals to sandbag the Olympic event and hit with a fine for the violation.
Like any respectable athlete would do today, Callippus lawyered up to fight the fine, and the Athenian athletes refused to compete in the games in protest. The standoff continued until the oracle of Delphi backed the punishment. So the Athenians relented, ending their boycott and paying the fine.
It was the first recorded Olympic boycott and, like those that have come since, failed to achieve the goal.
Nonetheless, human rights groups have been calling for nations to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — now just a few weeks away — to protest China’s well-documented human rights abuses.
Make no mistake, the regime’s record is atrocious.
The main focus is the brutal repression and genocide against the Muslim Uighur minority. But there is also the violent crushing of pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong, the ongoing subjugation of Tibet, the disappearance of tennis player Peng Shuai and countless other journalists and dissidents.
And there are the other misdeeds of the Chinese government, which covered up and mishandled the start of the Covid outbreak and has been taking an increasingly provocative military stance toward Taiwan.
This kind of depravity and defiance begs for a strong international response that, thus far, has been woefully inadequate.
But there is no reason to think, based on history or common sense, that a boycott of the Beijing games will accomplish anything.
Indeed the recent track record of boycotts — the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the Soviet’s retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles — shows their futility, according to David Lunt, a professor of history at Southern Utah University who studies sports in culture.
The Soviets obviously did not withdraw from Afghanistan simply because American athletes did not compete.
“If you could show me that not going to the Olympics would cause these poor Muslim Uighurs to be freed, everyone would do it. It hasn’t worked historically, and I don’t imagine China is super susceptible to this kind of pressure,” he said.
“I think the consensus is it mostly hurts the athletes who trained so hard, especially since it’s once every four years, most people’s peaks are only so long,” Lunt said.
Sen. Mitt Romney, who led Salt Lake City’s 2002 Winter Games, recommended a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics — refusing to send the typical entourage of dignitaries to the event, a move the Biden administration announced last month it would take.
The real pressure point for the Beijing Olympics is sponsorships. Corporate behemoths like Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Bridgestone, Intel, Panasonic, Toyota and Visa are spending millions upon millions of dollars to sponsor the games.
The pressure should be on them to take a stand and either pull their sponsorship dollars or, at the very least, speak out against the rampant abuses.
China should not have been awarded the games. It doesn’t deserve to play host to a gathering meant to symbolize unity and brotherhood. Going forward, these companies should use their leverage with the International Olympic Committee to make clear that they will no longer support Games staged in authoritarian, repressive countries.
The attention of billions of global viewers on the Olympics also offers an opportunity for broadcasters to shine a light on China’s abysmal human rights record. Personally, I would like to see the United States and other countries participate in the opening or closing ceremonies. And at the very least, I hope athletes will not be discouraged from using various forms of protest, subtle or overt, to focus attention on China’s abuses.
Will any of these steps have any meaningful impact on China’s treatment of minority populations or dissidents? No. Probably not.
But neither will depriving U.S. athletes of an opportunity many have worked their whole lives to achieve. “It would be unfair to ask a few hundred young American athletes to shoulder the burden of our disapproval,” Romney wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last year.
China needs to change, and the United States has a moral duty to apply whatever pressure it can to bring about that change. But an Olympic boycott, as with boycotts past, will only harm the athletes and prove as effective as the Athenian boycott in support of Callippus.