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Should Western Countries Boycott the Beijing Olympics?

Updated on April 12, 2008
Torch for the Moscow games.
Torch for the Moscow games.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There was a diplomatic cry among western nations, which the Soviet Union ignored. The cold war was on in earnest and neither side was willing to give way. Even worse for countries such as the United States and their allies the Olympic Games were due to be held in Moscow in 1980. If there wasn't a resolution of the crisis by then action would have to be taken.

The Soviets refused to withdraw from Afghanistan, and as the Olympics approached, the United States withdrew their team and over 50 countries followed suit. This was not the first boycott of the Olympic games due to political reasons, and it would not the the last.

The question is: Did these boycotts achieve their goal, and did they end up punishing the right people? This alone should give us some perspective on whether or not a boycott would have the desired effect on China and change its actions in Tibet.

Nadia Comaneci 1976 Olympics - A perfect 10 score

Which Olympics have been Boycotted and Why

1976 Summer Olympics - Montreal

The first major boycott of an Olympics was the Montreal games. This was the only major boycott which had nothing to do with the actions of the host country. This boycott was by African nations and centred around a Rugby Union tour taking place in South Africa. The focus on New Zealand's All Blacks Team was largely symbolic, but moreso because the tour was taking place at the same time the games were being held.

South Africa had been under a sporting boycott for years due to the apartheid regime, but this didn't stop rebel tours from happening. The All Blacks were on a rebel tour at the time the games were due to open. Kenya led the charge, calling for New Zealand to be barred from competing as the action of their rugby team showed that they supported the racist regime. New Zealand protested, pointing out that the governing body for Rugby Union in New Zealand was independent and not answerable to the government.

The IOC did not ban New Zealand, and they competed in the games. Most of the African nations did not. In all over 20 countries and 440 athletes withdrew from the games in protest to New Zealand's participation.

Moscow 1980 - Part of the Opening Ceremony

1980 Summer Olympics - Moscow

In 1979, as previously mentioned, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. The invasion created a flurry of diplomatic activity, with calls in the UN for the Soviets to withdraw. They did not, and reports coming back to the west told of the brutal suppression of the Afghans, and of the continuing war in the country as factions continued to fight the invaders. There was talk of massacres, but the news was sketchy.

The United States was the loudest in their condemnation of the invasion. The military activity dragged on as the Olympics drew closer, and the US put forth an ultimation: withdraw or we'll boycott. They did not withdraw, and so the US did, and took over 50 nations with them.

The Olympics went on, albeit with competition reduced. The Soviet Union would have its revenge four years later when the Olympic flame was lit once more in Los Angeles.

The Olympic Hymn and Flag Raising Los Angeles - 1984

1984 Summer Olympics - Los Angeles

In 1984 the Olympics went to the other big player in the cold war - the United States. Four years previously they had led a boycott which had damaged the Olympic games in Moscow. The reaction was almost inevitable. It seemed that just as there was a nuclear stand-off, there was an Olympic stand off.

The Russians cited security concerns for not attending the Games. To them, at the time, it may have even been a real concern. The official line was that there was such an irrational hatred of communism in the US that their athletes would not be safe, and so they and the majority of the Eastern Bloc stayed home. The only hold out to appear, at the "Friendship Games" was Romania.

As with the Moscow games not all athletes competed on the field of sport, and competition was reduced. The games were not all they could have been.

Who Won and Who Lost Because of the Boycotts?

This is the big question. In each case there was a concern, and in all cases the boycotts were to spread a political message about the games, or about the actions of a host country. The boycotts were politically motivated, and they did highlight the issue at the time, although they did not necessarily change the day to day reality of the event.

The big losers were the athletes, who had trained for years to go to the Olympics and found out just before the events that they would be unable to compete. In many cases, due to the nature of their sport, they would not have another chance. Perhaps if they'd had a say in the boycotts history would have been written a little differently.

Hitler salutes the Olympic Flag - Berlin 1936. This Olympic games was all about politics.
Hitler salutes the Olympic Flag - Berlin 1936. This Olympic games was all about politics.

The Politicization of the Olympic Games

The Olympic ideal has always been about the peaceful participation of all countries in sport. On the field, at least, politics would seem to play no part. In all of this it is very easy to forget the role that governments play in the Olympics and that in its own way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a political body itself.

The Olympics are funded with a combination of public funds, usually tax revenue and private funds provided by sponsors. Each of these bodies wants to have a say about how this money is spent. They want value for their investment. Who doesn't? Because tax revenue is used to fund the games, and most Organising Committees are government based, the hosting of the Olympics is a political affair. The point scoring does not just happen on the field of play.

The IOC overlooks the organization of the games, and in doing so they have to play the political game to an extent. Otherwise the Olympics would never be held. The other area where the IOC plays politics is in deciding which countries can compete. Political strife can lead to a country being banned, such as South Africa was for many years. There are other reasons, besides, for countries not being allowed to compete. These are political decisions on the part of the IOC, and their charter helps push the decisions along.

Whether or not we want to accept it, in the case of the Olympic Games, sport and politics mix and overlap. It's no wonder the Games is, well, fair game for a protest, boycott, or for other political games. It's a way to get your message to the world at lightning speed. After all, the world's media will be there in force, so why not use the situation to your advantage?

Did You Know?

Only five countries have attended every Summer Games held. They are:

  • Great Britain
  • Australia
  • France
  • Switzerland
  • Greece

Of all of these countries only one has won a gold medal at every one of the Games: Great Britain.

Today and China and the Olympics.

Tibet is a symptom of a much larger problem in China, and that is the suppression of minorities. World reaction to the suppression of protests in Tibet is unsurprising. That most Chinese aren't even aware of what is happening in Tibet is really a given, considering the suppression of the media in China. The restrictions on travel applied to ordinary citizens ensures that word of mouth is not likely to spread unflattering versions of the brutality in Tibet and elsewhere in China.

Regardless of what you see in the media about China, there are many places that westerners are not allowed to enter without escort, and what you see is what the communist government wants you to see.

This was a problem before Beijing was even granted the Olympic Games. It was one of the burning questions about their bid. Regardless of it they were granted the games.

The brutality in Tibet should never have happened.

The question that has to be asked is: Will boycotting the Olympic Games change anything?

The sad truth is most probably not. Brutal regimes are more likely to be overthrown from within rather than from the outside. Both communism in Russia and Apartheid in South Africa, which were the focus of two boycotts were not actually changed because of those boycotts. While it may have made the governments of the boycotting countries feel as though they were doing something, even if it was only point scoring, in reality it was toothless protest.

As stated before the people that lose in a wholesale action are the athletes, and they are the people who should decide whether or not they wish to compete in China. They are the people who should be approached with all the arguments for and against competing. On the whole, it would have much more impact than governments leading the charge.

Should Western Countries boycott the Beijing Games? No. Having individual, especially high profile athletes do it because of their own convictions, would have much more impact.


Submit a Comment

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from Australia

    @ Andrew: Good question. The IOC really stuffed up that one, and not for the first time.

    @ Matthew: I agree with you, it is about how you go about it as much as the end result. I remember the Sydney Olympics well, and I can tell you being in an Olympic city can be fun. But it isn't all about that. I suppose for the athletes involved it would have been an agonising decision. Give up all those years of work? I always liked Cathy Freeman's approach of using the arena to highlight the Aborigines achievements. Given our treatment of them she would have been well within her rights to boycott Sydney. Instead she showed the world something even better, I think. I hope what happened in the lead up to the Olympics in Beijing at least gives the IOC food for thought next time.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    The real question is why did Beijing get awarded the olympic games in the first place? The olympic committee shouldn't put athletes in a position where they have to choose their morals over their career.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    I truly believe that it is not what you achieve, but what you stand for in the process.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    It should be the athletes choice. In saying that, every athlete that chose not to boycott the games has completely lost my respect.

    They should have had the choice and if they were half decent individuals their choice would have been not to go.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from Australia

    Hi Curious Jen, Thanks for the comment. The IOC does need to have a firm position ahead of the elections for the games, I agree completely.

    It took a lot of soul searching, which is why I researched on what had happened in the past. My first clear memory of a boycott was the 1980 Olympics, and being young at the time I knew little of the issues behind it. When I looked deeper, over the history, what I discovered was that protests by boycotting didn't change much at all, other than reducing competition. They certainly didn't change the political landscape in a way that would foster change.

    The most effective protest is one that changes a country from within. There has to be spark, a realization that things cannot go along as they are. This is the most effective kind of change. Outside countries can put pressure on, but until that critical mass is reached it's almost a waiting game.

    Sorry this comment was so long; you gave me much to thing about. Thank you for the comment! I have been away on vacation (still am, actually) or I would have answered this earlier.

  • Curious Jen profile image

    Curious Jen 

    8 years ago from Canada/Nicaragua

    This is a very interesting topic and I'm not sure my opinion is entirely firm. However, I think any country that holds human rights as dear and non-negotiable should have boycotted those Games. It would be sad for the athletes, indeed. The IOC needs to understand that they can not give such an international forum to chronic human rights abusers.

    In 1986, while in university, I wrote a term paper on the use of the Olympic Games as a Forum for Social Protest. Not quite the same topic but related nonetheless. Now as a lawyer I believe human rights are absolute.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    I think that if there's a way to make a difference it has to be a more effective way. Boycotting is too politically charged, and there's usually more than one agenda at play, and every time it's been done it hasn't worked. I wish I had a solution, but somehow I think it has to be done in such a way as it seems like China's idea. There's that whole loss of face thing at play...

  • 02SmithA profile image


    10 years ago from Ohio

    Good discussion. I don't think boycotting is the right way to get your point across. I think it actually makes things worse in the long run.

  • Peter M. Lopez profile image

    Peter M. Lopez 

    10 years ago from Sweetwater, TX

    Great info and insight.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    Patty, that is what I would call an effective protest! I am not really sure if the Dali Lama would agree, though. He seems to be a man who doesnt need a showy protest to get his point across. I would love to see justice done, as it should be. I would rather see a protest which gets the message across in such a way that it cannot possibly be ignored. I just dont think boycotting the Olympics is the way to go about it. I wish I cculd think of an effective alternative.

  • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

    Patty Inglish MS 

    10 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

    It would be poetic justice against those prejucided toward Tibet for ALL 100% of the athletes to move the Olympics to wherever the Dalai Lama is living, and use whatever venues were available, if it were only an open field or a lake. 

    It would also be poetic justice if somehow, we could protect the Dalai Lama and get him into the Beijing stadium and up to the Cauldron safely and let him light it! 

    Just my opinion.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    crashcromwell, you did the same thing I did. Although my userinfo says I've been here 7 months, I've really only been active for four. I posted on hub and then forgot about it. I'm glad I gave it a second go. The IOC bears a great amount of responsibility for the current chaos, I agree. I will have a look at your hubs, been insanely busy this weekend, so I haven't had a chance to get online much, except for approving comments. Hopefully during the week I'll have a little more time.

    Matt, The Olympics are great. Being in an Olympic city while they are on gives you an even greater appreciation of the games. If you get the chance, go. The London Olympics is really not that far off. The reasons you've given are why the athletes should be the ones to decide. They make the biggest sacrifice when there is a boycott. Some will never get another chance to compete, and they deserve to dignity of making the decision for themselves.

    Kerry, you have an LJ, too? That link hasn't shown up on my friendslist yet. But, then again, I only have a small FL on LJ and it is mainly fandom stuff. That sign is simply hilarious! I mean what were they thinking? Even a look at wikipedia would have saved them a lot of embarrassment. I'm still wiping the tears from my eyes. And now we know why they say that those that do not know history are doomed to repeat it. ;-)

    Firead, so true, and one of the reasons why I did this hub to begin with. Isn't the definition of insanity something like, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? That's what boycotting Beijing will be like. There won't be a different result, except for some more bad blood between nations. The Olympics just isn't the arena for these types of actions.

  • flread45 profile image


    10 years ago from Montana

    This boycott buisness has been going on for years,and nothing is ever resolved from it except ruining an athletes life.Also generates more(Hate amongst Countries).

  • kerryg profile image


    10 years ago from USA

    This is a great and thought-provoking discussion of the issues. Personally, I agree with you that the choice should be left up to individual athletes, not governments.

    There's a hilarious photo making its way around LiveJournal of a protester from SF with a sign reading "Would we have allowed Nazi Germany to host the Olympics?" Epic fail on so many levels.

    ETA: Oops, looks like it may temporarily have exceeded its bandwidth. Stupid hotlinkers.

  • Matt Maresca profile image

    Matt Maresca 

    10 years ago from New Jersey

    I love the Olympics. I love every part of it. It is a time when the whole world can come together and celebrate many feel-good moments celebrating the hard work and dedication of the athletes. These people do not just train for four years for the Olympics, they train their entire lives. For many, they only get one shot. Taking away their dreams for political reasons should not even be considered. These Olympics are not a gift to the Chinese governement, the games are a gift to the world and the athletes representing. I look forward to taking a couple weeks in August to feel great about how spectacular this world can be when we all come together.

  • crashcromwell profile image


    10 years ago from Florida

    I agree 100 percent with your thought on the IOC needing to be more selective in the host communities. It was almost a given that the Chinese would bend someone's nose out of joint. They should not be surprised.

    Yes, I am relatively knew to hub pages. I posted one hub back in January and then promptly forgot all about it. Then, about a week or so ago, I got an email telling me about my hub activity. It reminded me that I had signed up, and that's when I started posting with greater frequency.

    As a writer, I try to post as many comments as I can. I also believe in maintaining a positive mental attitude, so my comments tend to be complimentary. Speaking of which, I'm glad I found your hub and hope you'll visit mine.

    Jim Henry

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    Doghouse, I have to agree with you on that point, I think that the safety of the athletes is of prime importance. I'm actually just as worried about the safety of the torchbearers at the moment. I think they are in more danger because of the protests.

    Steph. I'm glad you liked it. I wanted something that had enough information for people to see where I was coming from, hence the long hub. :-)

    crashcromwell, welcome aboard, I haven't seen you around, but then I've been a bit quiet of late. I was too young to really understand the politics behind Carter's decision at the time (I was 12 years old during that Olympics) - the Los Angeles Olympics was when that really crashed home, so to speak. I agree with you, it was the wrong decision. It didn't achieve anything except for the disruption of the next Olympic Games.

    If any country really wants to have a say, then taking the measures you are suggesting would be a great start. And more can be said by the athletes on the field, even if it's only symbolically. As a local example I think Cathy Freeman said more by competing and having her say on how Aboriginals are treated here in Australia, than she ever would have by not competing. The best way to handle a bully is not by force, but by showing that force will not cause you to backdown from your own ideals.

    If, in future, the IOC wants to minimise disruption to the Games then they need to be more sensitive about the countries they pick to host the games. There are events out of their control, such as what happened in Monteal, but there are other indicators that they could easily use to decide when voting on the winning city.

  • crashcromwell profile image


    10 years ago from Florida

    I recall when Jimmy Carter decided Americans would not participate in the Moscow Olympic games. I felt then, and I feel now, that it was a mistake. Olympic athletes train for years for the chance to compete in these games. The athletes don't choose the location of the Olympics - that's for the IOC to decide. To boycott the Olympics in China just because we disagree with the politics of the Chinese would be wrong. Plus, there are much more effective ways to influence the Chinese government, like depriving China of Most Favored Nation status for trade.

    I personally think that if we chose to boycott the Olympics, it wouldn't change the price of tea in China. Plus, if we go, it would give us the opportunity to stand before our bully pulpit and make some serious statements about the Chinese government's human rights record. Make 'em squirm!

  • stephhicks68 profile image

    Stephanie Hicks 

    10 years ago from Bend, Oregon

    What a thought-provoking Hub! Thank you for putting all of this together for a great basis for discussion and more...

  • In The Doghouse profile image

    In The Doghouse 

    10 years ago from California


    Great Hub with lots of good information. I think I would have to agree with the sentiments that Eileen posted. The athletes safety being the foremost issue. I also think that it is a shame that they would have trained that hard only to have their games boycotted. This is certainly a hot debate right now. Thanks again for the good info.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    John, thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

    You know, Eileen, the ironic part is that the athletes will most probably be very safe in Beijing. The communists, after all, have a iron control at the moment. I really doubt there'll be any bombings or the likes. Nowhere is truly safe; Atlanta showed us that, and I believe the Americans did the best they possibly could at the time. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, is it not?

    The human rights abuses in China should have been taken into account when Beijing was voted in as the 2008 city.

    Would you believe I started thinking about this when I came across my Misha bear (the mascot of the Moscow Olympics) and remembered the boycott. It took me a while to gather all the information. I didn't even know about the 1976 boycott before I started researching. I was a bit young to remember that Olympic Games.

  • Eileen Hughes profile image

    Eileen Hughes 

    10 years ago from Northam Western Australia

    It is such a shame, as you say the athletes are the losers. After they train every day just for this. But the main thing really is the safety of the athletes and the people going to see them perform.

    The torch resembles friendship and that has been made a ridicule of .... You sure collected lots of information

  • John Chancellor profile image

    John Chancellor 

    10 years ago from Tennessee

    Very good discussion and conclusion.

  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    Hi Arkwriter, I'm nodding. Political point scoring won't work as a long term strategy, I think. I didn't meet any of the athletes during the games in Sydney, but I did meet a few of the Technical Officials (volunteers, all) and they were stoked just to be there. They'd also be penalised because of a boycott. I hope that the two can be kept in balance. I don't think the games can exist without a certain amount of politicking, but it has to be kept in its place. Easier said than done, unfortunately.

  • arkwriter profile image


    10 years ago from Houston, Texas U.S.A.

    I agree with you that boycotting the Beijing Olympics will hurt the athletes more than anyone else. I just posted a hub last evening "Will the Olympic Flame be extinguished by Politics?"


  • Hovalis profile imageAUTHOR


    10 years ago from Australia

    Funride, they don't care at all. Sadly, I saw the effect of that when I was younger and living in boarding accommodation, when a survivor of the Tiennamen(sp?) Square Massacre moved in. Seeing someone so lost was hard, since we couldn't even converse without one of the other students from Hong Kong to translate. I've been keeping a weather eye on China ever since. It's going to take something enormous and unforgivable for that regime to change. :-(

  • funride profile image

    Ricardo Nunes 

    10 years ago from Portugal

    I totally agree with your last paragraph. The individual athletes would have a much stronger "voice". Unfortunately, Chinese governance doesn´t seem to care about others opinions :/


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