Sports Diplomacy: Can Soft Power Undermine the 2022 Olympic Games?
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“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers” - Nelson Mandela.
Earlier this week, the United States, along with Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, announced that they would launch a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. They have since been joined by New Zealand, Kosovo and Lithuania (T. Hamilton, 2021). They claim this is in protest of China’s human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong and concerns over tennis star Peng Shuai. As a result, these countries will not send any delegates to the games. However, they will still be sending athletes.
This is not the first time that states have used high profile sporting events to make diplomatic protests. Eight countries boycotted the 1956 Melbourne Games in protest against the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, 66 countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, a move that was reciprocated in 1984 when 17 Soviet Bloc states opted out of the Los Angeles Games (Ibid). These are examples of sports diplomacy, which is described as the appropriation of sport as a conduit of international diplomacy.
Sports Diplomacy and its Use
The use of sport as an instrument of soft power has a long history and its effectiveness cannot be understated. International sporting competitions are often used as venues for unofficial multilateral meetings between politicians and world leaders to resolve issues (J. Trunkos and B. Heere, 2017, p. 7). Events also present an opportunity for host nations to demonstrate their cultural, historical, economic and political achievements, thus attracting tourism and foreign investment. Sport is a universal language that can break down cultural barriers, project a country's values, illustrate national identities and act as a bridge between peoples (Department of Health, 2019, p. 7). Events can also act as a catalyst for new international agreements between states (H. M. Nygård and S. Gates, 2013, p. 235), as seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in which both Korea’s competed under the same flag. Sports diplomacy can go a long way in strengthening partnerships and promoting the "national brand", especially if the athletes themselves participate through ambassadorships and advertising (Ibid). More importantly, most international sporting events allow territories and nations to compete, and if an athlete from an internationally unrecognised nation wins an event, it can provide legitimacy (J. Trunkos and B. Heere, 2017, p. 14). In short, the opportunities to exercise some diplomatic muscle are endless.
In the past, sports diplomacy has been effectively used to further the national interest, but it can also backfire spectacularly. The ’80 and ’84 boycotts had a very minimal impact and only served to punish athletes who were prevented from competing (D. Roan, 2021). Yet, the sporting boycotts against apartheid South Africa in the '70s and '80s demonstrate the effectiveness of international pressure through the means of sport to address human rights concerns (Ibid). Avoiding boycotts and allowing competition can achieve similar results, as with the 1971 exhibition matches between the Chinese and American ping-pong teams, which helped end two decades of diplomatic tension between the two countries (J. Trunkos and B. Heere, 2017, p. 7-8). Similarly, South Korea attempted to improve its relations with the Soviet Union and other Eastern European states in the lead up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics to prevent a boycott in support of North Korea and increase the South’s prestige. However, the 1936 Olympics infamously gave a platform for the Nazi’s to spread their propaganda abroad and begin talks over geopolitical alignment with delegates from other states, contributing to the downfall of the inter-war world order (Ibid, p. 8).
Comparing the 2022 Boycott
The question that dawns on us today is whether or not this recent boycott will pressure China on its human rights record or fail miserably. These states have had some diplomatic spat with China in recent years and currently have several disputes with China aside from human rights concerns. One might think their delegates could use the excuse of attending the games to address these concerns with their Chinese counterparts, but perhaps they think the diplomatic boycott will humiliate China and force Beijing to back down on key issues. Due to its similarities, perhaps they hope to mirror the international community’s success against apartheid South Africa by bringing up China’s recent human rights record.
By choosing not to send delegates, these states deny themselves the opportunity to use the games as a screen to conduct diplomacy with their counterparts. They further deny themselves the chance to use the event to create a platform to sign new international agreements or settle disputes. When Japan and South Korea were selected to host the 2002 FIFA World Cup jointly, they used the event to begin a dialogue, resulting in changes to visa regulations and open bilateral economic forums (J. Trunkos and B. Heere, 2017 p. 10). What this boycott may do, however, is create some awareness of China’s human rights record and undermine Beijing's attempt to give a positive representation of itself. But will this occur and how effective will it be?
Recent history may give us an idea. The notion that participating in such events can break down barriers and lead to advancements, particularly in human rights, is disproven by the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Cup (D. Roan, 2021). The desire to make a positive impression on the international community did little to encourage change in Russia and China, rather the opposite. Russia used the prestige and favourable image granted by the Sochi Games to distract the world from the annexation of Crimea, which occurred less than a month after the closing ceremony. Therefore, competing at the games will most likely not dissuade China from its current path. However, does the protest challenge that?
Since host nations use international sporting events to show off their most significant accomplishments and entice investment, no host nation would ever highlight their problematic past and so we can expect little discussion on human rights from the organisers. Any awareness regarding Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Peng Shuai would have to come from the outside. However, an Opening and Closing Ceremony that illustrates 3,500 years of Chinese innovation and progress may be enough to drown out the noise made by this handful of states if the 2008 Opening and Closing Ceremonies are anything to go by. In the past, the most effective boycotts were done collectively by dozens of states, such was the case of the anti-apartheid boycotts. The current list of protest states is far too small to have any impact, even if it includes the names of some high-profile countries. Any hopes these countries might have of gathering supporters have already fallen on deaf ears. Italy and France have declined an offer to join the boycott, so too have Japan and South Korea, all of which have previously condemned China’s human rights record or themselves have a contentious history with China (T. Hamilton, 2021). So we can safely assume that there will be little support for the boycott.
The same might also be true of the athletes themselves. Unlike the '80 and '84 boycotts, the athletes of Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and the other protest states will still be allowed to compete in Beijing with the support of their governments and the hosts. Sporting events often allow athletes a platform to make political statements and exercise their freedom of speech, even in countries with tight restrictions on the speech of their citizenry (D. Roan, 2021). However, whether or not the athletes will take the opportunity to criticise China’s human rights record is up for debate.
Critics of soft power often insist that it is too ineffective at influencing the actions of states. Sport diplomacy, however, has a long history of changing state behaviour, making it arguably one of the most effective soft power tools available to states. However, in the case of the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, the recent boycott announcement is unlikely to achieve anything. Without the backing of a large contingent of allies, China is likely to dismiss the boycott and carry on as usual. The United States and its allies further undermined themselves by only using a diplomatic boycott instead of a complete boycott like at the 1980 Moscow Games. The only hope these states have of using the event to humiliate China is for its athletes to have the courage to put themselves potentially in harm's way to denounce China's human rights record at the event. But that is very unlikely even with IOC rules somewhat protecting the free expression of competitors. I therefore find myself agreeing with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron in saying this diplomatic boycott is both “pointless”, "insignificant" and counterproductive (D. Roan, 2021 and T. Hamilton, 2021).
Department of Health, Sports Diplomacy 2030, Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia as represented by the Department of Health, 2019, p. 1-24. [Online] Available: https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2021/08/sports-diplomacy-2030_0.pdf
H.M. Nygård and S. Gates, Soft power at home and abroad: Sport diplomacy, politics and peace-building, vol 16, issue 3, Oslo, Norway: International Area Studies Review, 2013, p. 235-243. DOI: 10.1177/2233865913502971.
S. McClellan, Sport – A Tool for International Diplomacy, Melbourne, Australia: Australian Institute of International Affairs, 2015. [Online] Available: https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/sport-a-tool-for-international-diplomacy/
T. Hamilton, What, exactly, is a 'diplomatic boycott' of the Beijing Olympics?, Bath, UK: ESPN News, 2021, 10thDecember. [Online] Available: https://www.espn.com.au/olympics/story/_/id/32831100/what-exactly-diplomatic-boycott-beijing-olympics
J. Trunks and B. Heere, “Sport diplomacy: A review of how sports can be used to improve international relationships”,Case studies in sport diplomacy, 2017, p. 1-18. [Online] Available: https://fitpublishing.com/sites/default/files/pages_from_sportdiplomacy-011317-bw20.pdf
D. Roan, How much does the diplomatic boycott of Beijing 2022 matter?, London, UK: BBC News World, 2021, 14thDecember. [Online] Available: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-59646231?at_medium=RSS&at_campaign=KARANGA