U.S. alerts no plans to boycott 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics after genocide designation

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Workers move a sign at the Olympic Village in the Chongli district of Zhangjiakou

By Nandita Bose, Steve Keating and Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is signaling it currently has no plans to bar American athletes’ participation in the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, despite mounting calls for the Games to be moved over China’s human rights record.

Rights advocacy groups and politicians have made demands for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take the event out of China, casting a pall on Beijing’s efforts to highlight the Games as Thursday marks one year from opening day.

A group of U.S. Republican senators on Tuesday introduced a resolution with a similar call to move the Games after the United States’ designation that the Chinese government was perpetrating genocide against Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang region. That decision was made in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“We’re not currently talking about changing our posture or our plans as it relates to the Beijing Olympics,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“We consult, of course, closely with allies and partners at all levels to define our common concerns and establish a shared approach, but there is no discussion underway of a change in our plans from the United States at this point in time,” she said.

The White House and the State Department, asked repeatedly in recent days whether the Biden administration supported moving the Games, referred reporters to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) for further comment.

“We oppose Games boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues,” the USOPC said in a statement.

“We believe the more effective course of action is for the governments of the world and China to engage directly on human rights and political issues,” it said.

Biden’s White House has not previously suggested publicly that it would oppose China as host, despite Beijing facing international condemnation for running labor and detention camps in Xinjiang.

An independent U.N. panel said in 2018 that it had received credible reports that at least 1 million Uighurs and other Muslims had been held in the region, which borders Pakistan and Afghanistan. Beijing describes them as “vocational training centers” to stamp out extremism, and denies accusations of abuse.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week he backed the genocide designation made by the Trump administration while favoring cooperation with China on climate change and other issues.

HIGH BAR FOR BOYCOTTS

Human Rights Watch on Wednesday slammed the IOC, saying its “failure to publicly confront Beijing’s serious human rights violations makes a mockery of its own commitments and claims that the Olympics are a ‘force for good’.”

The idea of an Olympic boycott is fraught political territory for the White House and for corporate sponsors.

“I think you want to raise the bar really high for Olympic boycotts,” an Asian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “Public signaling sometimes becomes very hard for countries to step back from.”

Reuters sought comment from 15 global Olympic corporate sponsors.

Airbnb, Alibaba (NYSE:), Atos, Bridgestone, Dow, Panasonic (OTC:), P&G, Samsung (KS:), Toyota and Visa (NYSE:) did not respond to requests for comment. General Electric (NYSE:) said its contract is ending after the Tokyo Summer Games set for this year after being postponed in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Intel (NASDAQ:) declined to comment. Omega, Coca-Cola (NYSE:) and Allianz (DE:) reiterated their commitment to the 2022 Beijing Olympics.

Politicians and activists targeted China with boycott campaigns ahead of its hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics, but then Republican President George W. Bush attended the opening ceremonies in Beijing.  

There has been speculation that the Biden administration’s support for the genocide designation could push it to seek allied backing for a boycott in 2022, something a U.S. president has not done since Jimmy Carter blocked American athletes from attending the 1980 Summer Games in the former Soviet Union.

Ultimately, some U.S. allies chose to participate, including the U.K. and France. Four years later, in a tit-for-tat response, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Senior IOC member Dick Pound, a Canadian, told Reuters he doubted pressure would change the IOC’s support for staging the event in Beijing.

“My guess is there will be more voices urging it (a boycott), but I don’t think it is going to change the basic IOC view. It’s a very complicated and tension filled world and the more doors you can keep open the better,” Pound said.

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