Do sporting boycotts work?

Both the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the Qatar 2022 World Cup have faced calls for boycotts due to human rights abuses. But refusing to participate in a tournament has not always been a successful form of protest

May 20, 2021
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

Nearly 80 percent of the Japanese public would like the Tokyo Olympic games, rescheduled from this July, to be postponed or cancelled altogether, according to the most recent polls. The small—but now energised—anti-Olympic movement is calling for the world to stay away.

Meanwhile, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, scheduled to start in February next year, have faced calls for a boycott since they were awarded to China in 2015. In recent months, the pressing complaints from representatives of China’s Uighur minority, Tibetans and global human rights groups has been joined by democracy activists in Hong Kong, and energised by the Biden administration’s description of China’s Uighur policy as genocidal, as well as calls for a boycott in political and sporting circles in Canada and Australia.

Proposals to boycott the Qatar 2022 World Cup, awarded by Fifa in 2010, have been circulating for even longer. International labour and human rights organisations have documented the colossal loss of life that has accompanied the country’s $250bn construction programme. Recent reports suggesting a death toll of around 6,500—roughly one fatality for every minute of football to be played at the tournament—have triggered a new burst of protest.

Beginning with a call from Tromsø, a small football club north of the arctic circle, to boycott the tournament, the idea has gained support in Norwegian football from leading clubs, fan groups and players in the men’s national team. Players from Norway, Denmark and Germany all made human rights protests during the recent round of 2022 World Cup qualifying games, and fan groups in Germany have offered their support too.

We have all been here before, of course. Calls for sporting boycotts are hardly new, but it is worth reviewing the historical record of what does and doesn’t work. The original Olympic boycott was conducted by Baron de Coubertin, who, paradoxically, was the founder and president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In protest over the staging of an “extra” Olympics in Athens in 1906, (squeezed in between St Louis 1904 and London 1908) organised by the Greek government and renegade members of the IOC against his express wishes, the Baron pointedly stayed away and refused to mention the games in his Review Olympique.  

His successors, not surprisingly, have yet to repeat this feat, but many have faced the threat of Olympic boycotts. Trade unions and Jewish and Catholic groups mobilised to try and force the US Olympic Committee to boycott the 1936 Berlin games. The Dutch, the Swiss and the Spanish refused to attend the 1956 Melbourne games in a protest over the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian Uprising.

 African American athletes, organised behind the Olympic Human Rights Project, threatened to boycott the 1968 Mexico City games as part of the wider civil rights struggle.  

Since the 1950s, the Chinese have conducted their own one-country boycotts of a variety of Olympics over the presence of Taiwan, while sub-Saharan African states boycotted the 1976 Montreal games to object to the participation of New Zealand, whose rugby union side had, in contravention of the anti-apartheid movement’s sporting boycott, played South Africa. The US and many of its allies boycotted Moscow 1980 over the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets returned the favour when the games went to Los Angeles in 1984. Everyone actually went to Seoul in 1988 except, of course, the North Koreans, who refused.

Football, lacking the US/USSR cold war dynamic, was less prone to this kind of protest. The 1966 World Cup did see a boycott of its qualifying rounds by sub-Saharan African states protesting Fifa’s refusal to allocate more than half a slot to Africa at the World Cup (Africa’s top team having to play off against Asia’s top team for a single berth). However, Argentina 1978, organised by the military junta alongside its brutal disappearances, faced global calls for a boycott that fell on deaf ears.

After the end of apartheid and the Cold War, and the marginalisation of Taiwan, the calls for boycotts subsided. They were only renewed when the 2008 Olympics were awarded to Beijing. The leading issues were Tibet and China’s support for the war in Darfur. Then, as now, the riposte was that staging international sporting spectacles forces closed and authoritarian states to engage with international norms, and expose themselves to international scrutiny. Needless to say, Beijing 2008 achieved neither of these aims. Nor, for that matter, did the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics or the 2018 Russian World Cup—both of which faced unsuccessful boycott campaigns.  

The balance sheet of these campaigns is mixed. The Olympic Project for Human Rights made its biggest impact not by boycotting the Mexico City Olympics, but by supporting Tommy Smith and John Carlos making their black power salute on the medal podium. China’s boycott, on the admittedly limited agenda of “the PRC or Taiwan,” worked. In 1976, the Canadian Government, at the behest of Beijing, made it clear that Taiwan could only participate if it was not competing under the flag of the Republic of China, and only if it called itself Chinese Taipei. Africa got more World Cup places eventually, but only when Joao Havelange was elected Fifa president in 1974—not because of the boycott. The Cold War no-shows of the 1980s were all sound and fury. 

Only the anti-apartheid movement’s campaign can be said to have made a significant and tangible contribution to political change. However, this required, amongst other things: a truly global alliance of actors; a clear set of political and sporting demands; significant support from South African opponents of the apartheid regime; a combination of government support and social movement pressure from below; a situation in which exclusion from international sport carried real domestic political costs for the apartheid regime; and more than three decades of work.

Given this record, what hope is there that the boycott campaigns around Beijing 2022 and Qatar 2022 can gather support and make a difference? Many of the preconditions of the anti-apartheid campaign are absent. What, exactly, are we asking for? The dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party? Citizenship for Qatar’s two million foreign workers? We certainly don’t have 30 years to work on it. Moreover, the IOC has been phenomenally busy trying to close down the Carlos-Smith alternative by banning, in the strongest possible tones, any form of protest or political signalling at the games and on its medal podiums. 

On the other hand, the world of sporting politics has changed, and this offers new opportunities for protest. First, the stakes are actually much higher than they used to be. Both China and Qatar have made the staging of sporting events, and their own international sporting performances, central elements of their foreign policy and domestic agendas. China has made the achievement of Xi Jinping’s “three wishes”—that China should qualify for, host and win the World Cup by 2050—an official marker of social progress.

Qatar, owner of Paris Saint-Germain football team through its state fund Qatar Sports Investments, and host of innumerable mega-events of which the World Cup is the capstone, is spending more on the 2022 tournament than every other Olympic Games and every World Cup combined, putting sport at the centre of a quarter of a trillion-dollar infrastructure programme. Invulnerable as these regimes may seem, these things really do matter to them—a soft underbelly is exposed here.

Second, the deep politicisation of sport by governments, the global super rich, and aspirant populist politicians everywhere has destroyed what little remained of the unspoken bar among many athletes and spectators on mixing sport and politics. Thus we are seeing a new wave of athlete activism across all sports. This has been driven by the increasing economic and psychological autonomy of many athletes from the suffocating conservatism of mainstream sport's cultures and institutions, in particular due to their access to social media.

From LeBron James on Black Lives Matter to Megan Rapinoe on Trump, from Marcus Rashford on food poverty to David Pocock on climate change, athletes are speaking up and out, and not just as individuals. Climate activist athletes, for example, are gathering around groups like Champions for Earth, Front Runners and Save our Winters. The corollary of this in football has been the widespread fan protests over the European Super League, and in Germany, where fan culture is most organised and politicised, a huge campaign for the economic and political reform of the German game.

Given these changes, is the boycott—led by national governments or single-issue NGOs, often imposing abstinence on athletes—the most effective model of sports politics? Should, for example, the public be expected to join the boycott? What is the role of broadcasters and sponsors? Given that the athletes are the people most negatively affected by boycotts, shouldn't they be leading the debate, rather than being bullied and corralled by their federations and the IOC into supporting boycotts or opposing them, while keeping their own political opinions hidden?

Hosting a global mega event, and all the positive exposure it offers, should perhaps come at the price that it is not just the host’s show, and not just the host’s messages that matter. Either way, we also need to be focusing our collective energy on the institutions and decision-making processes that handed out the hosting rights in the first place. It’s not like the problem of authoritarian hosts is going away any time soon.

This is not to discount the new energies, both diplomatic and athletic, that are calling out injustice, racism, human rights abuses and reputational laundering in sport. However, as sport knows above all, enthusiasm and energy need organisation and strategy to work. Perhaps there is a global coalition that can be created which could, now or in the future, mount plausible, focused, multi-actor boycotts and campaigns against disreputable hosts and corrupt sporting federations—one that insists on athletes’ and fans’ rights to freedom of expression, and on stadium workers’ rights to fair treatment and compensation. 2022 is probably too soon, but we might as well aim for the top.