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7 December 2021

How big could the Olympic boycott get?

The US diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing would be the first Olympics snub since 1988.

By Ben van der Merwe

The Biden administration has announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing in February.

US athletes will still compete in the games, but there will be no official government delegation. The White House has described the boycott as a reaction to China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

There has not been a full-blown Olympic boycott since 1988, and the US announcement seems unlikely to spark one. Though the governments of Australia, Canada and the UK are reported to be considering a similar diplomatic boycott, no government has yet hinted at an athletic or commercial boycott of the games.

The lack of a concerted boycott effort is a sign that, despite rising geopolitical tensions, international divisions are far less clear-cut than during the Cold War.

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At the height of that, a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics saw 66 countries refuse to send athletes in protest at the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. With the exception of Iran and Albania, all were US allies. The subsequent 1984 games in Los Angeles were boycotted by 18 countries, all of them allies of the USSR – again with the exception of Iran and Albania.

By contrast, relatively few countries today are exclusively committed to relations with either the US or China. At the time of the 1980 Olympics, the USSR accounted for just 3 per cent of global imports, compared to China’s 10 per cent share as of 2020, according to UN Comtrade data.

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China accounts for more than 15 per cent of exports for 25 countries, including key US allies such as Australia (39 per cent), Brazil (32 per cent), South Korea (26 per cent) and Japan (20 per cent).

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