By Sam Ord
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2786

What’s behind calls for an Olympic boycott?

The US is leading a boycott of China’s Winter Olympics. But it won’t help the Uyghurs, says Sam Ord
Issue 2786
Athletes compete in the 1980 Moscow Marathon. (Pic: Bundesarchiv)

Athletes compete in the 1980 Moscow Marathon. (Pic: Bundesarchiv)

A growing number of countries, including the US, Britain and Australia, are planning an imperialist-driven boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China.

This “diplomatic boycott” won’t stop athletes participating in the Games that are set for February, but no government representatives will attend.

The US was first to announce its decision last month. It accuses China of holding over one million, mostly Muslim, Uyghurs in repressive “political education” camps in the western Xinjiang Provence.

The use of forced labour, heavy surveillance and torture tactics in the camps has been widely reported.

China initially denied the camps’ existence, but later relented.

The US, and a growing number of its allies, hypocritically denounce China for human rights abuses.

Each has its own bloody record of torture camps, genocide, and military occupation.

No one should support this boycott which is little more than an imperialist power play.

But neither should we ignore the oppression of the Uyghurs. If Uyghur groups themselves called for a boycott, socialists would have to give their call serious consideration.

Socialists insist it is both possible and necessary to oppose both US and Chinese imperialism, and to fight against both.

There is no value in declaring that sport ought to be free of politics and international rivalry.

The modern Olympics have always been political. They provide a stage for imperialist competition to gain a mass audience, and an opportunity to express “soft power”.

Radical writer George Orwell argued that nationalism is at the core of major sporting events.

While the Games’ organisers will doubtless talk of “bringing the world together”, our ruling classes know that international sport encourages nationalism and rivalry, not comradeship.

That’s why boycotts have hit several Olympics Games in the past.

In 1976, grassroots resistance forced 29 countries to boycott the Canadian Games after the Olympic Committee refused to ban New Zealand. Earlier that year the New Zealand rugby team toured apartheid South Africa despite a sporting embargo.

The US and Britain never joined calls to boycott those Games. Nor did they boycott the Mexican Games in 1968 when police gunned down anti-government student protesters.

The ruling class argue that politics must be kept separate from sport until they can use it to their own advantage.

The most prolific boycott was in 1980 when 65 countries, led by the US, boycotted the Summer Olympics hosted by the Soviet Union. The reason? The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Those who thought this was an act of from US ruling class towards the Afghan people need only look at what happened in the decades that followed.

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 leading to one million deaths. Now, after leaving the country destroyed and destitute, the country stands on the brink of mass starvation.

The real motivation for the US-led boycott of the Games in China is economic and geopolitical. The US regards China as the main threat to its global dominance.

The boycott won’t help the Uyghurs win liberation, but it will fulfil the imperialist purpose of showing the world that the West is willing to intensify confrontation.

Olympic boycotts only become vehicles for real change when mass public pressure comes to bear.

In 1968 many African countries vowed to boycott the Games if apartheid South Africa wasn’t excluded from the competition, which it eventually was.

The liberation of oppressed Uyghurs can come only through their own protests and uprisings.

Emancipation cannot be simply handed to them from Washington.

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