At this point it seems almost certain that Canadian athletes will be in Beijing in 12 months competing in the 2022 Winter Olympics.
But that doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to send them there.
I get the arguments against a boycott: it’s unfair to the athletes, it’s unlikely to accomplish much (especially if Canada acts alone), it would likely worsen relations with China, and I suppose it’s even counter to the spirit of unity and togetherness that the Olympics is supposed to represent.
None of those arguments, however, make me feel any less uncomfortable with the idea of our participation in this spectacle.
Frankly, these arguments seem more like we’re trying to rationalize what we know to be the wrong decision. With the ongoing arbitrary detention of two Canadian citizens, with the disturbing revelations about the brutal treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities (which the U.S. and even some Canadian politicians are now willing to describe as ‘genocide’), with the crackdown on human rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and with the overall belligerent behaviour of China’s government, it’s hard to imagine a stronger case for an Olympic boycott.
Even if we were to turn a blind eye to everything else (which it seems we are inevitably going to do here), let’s just consider the plight of the two Michaels. If we accept the premise that China has engaged in hostage diplomacy and has essentially kidnapped Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor (a premise that only the most devoted of China apologists would reject), then we should be gravely concerned about the well-being of every single Canadian that would be a part of the Olympic team and delegation.
Given how brazen the Chinese government has been here, it would be naïve to think that the cover of the Olympic Games would offer much protection for our citizens.
It’s also entirely possible that China may end up releasing the two Michaels as some sort of pre-Olympic goodwill gesture. If so, then it certainly undercuts the idea that a boycott would have no impact. China wants the Olympics to be an event free of controversy and that especially includes any talk of boycotts.
In this context, Canada matters. We have leverage here, if we’re inclined to use it.
Unfortunately, it’s abundantly clear that we’re not prepared to do so. The Liberal government’s response to the question of whether we’d consider boycotting the Games was to leave it up to the Canadian Olympic Committee. Whether one supports or opposes a boycott, this is not the sort of decision that should be left up to the Canadian Olympic Committee (and there’s no plausible scenario in which the Canadian Olympic Committee would propose a boycott in the first place).
Ultimately, this is a question of foreign policy and we’re still waiting for the government’s new policy framework as it pertains to China. Absent that, inaction seems to be the default.
Ideally, the Olympics wouldn’t have been awarded to China in the first place. Beijing’s eagerness to host, coupled with the growing aversion among western countries to hosting, underscores a deeper rot within the International Olympic Committee and the sort of spectacle that the Olympics have become.
We’ve already seen how China is willing to use the Olympics as a propaganda tool. In hosting the world for what may be the first post-pandemic Olympics, those propaganda efforts may be even more intense than they were in 2008. Do we really want to be a party to that?
Furthermore, the fact that China has become an even more belligerent international actor in the years since the 2008 Olympics should also put to rest any idea that the 2022 Winter Olympics could have a moderating effect on their behaviour, either at home or abroad.
Ultimately, a boycott is unlikely to be considered, let alone followed through on. The case for a boycott, however, is compelling.
We’ll see how history judges us.