Just hours after word surfaced that the United States and its allies were reportedly weighing a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in response to widespread allegations of China’s human-rights violations, the U.S. State Department walked back that idea Tuesday evening.
“[A joint boycott] is something that we certainly wish to discuss,” State spokesman Ned Price told reporters at a briefing earlier Tuesday. “A coordinated approach will not only be in our interest but also in the interest of our allies and partners.”
“We’re talking about 2022, and we are still in April of 2021, so these Games remain some time away,” Price added. “I wouldn’t want to put a time frame on it, but these discussions are underway.”
The Games are due to take place in Beijing between Feb. 4-20.
A senior State Department official subsequently told CNBC, however, that the U.S. has not “discussed and [is] not discussing any joint boycott with allies and partners,” adding that the country’s “position on the 2022 Olympics has not changed.”
The U.S. Olympic Committee (IOC) told Sourcing Journal that it must remain neutral on all global political issues.
”Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee (NOC) does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country,” a spokesperson said. ”The Olympic Games are governed by the IOC, not by governments. The IOC issues the invitation to NOCs to participate—the invitations do not come from the government of the host country. The host country’s head of state is allowed to say only one sentence, scripted by the IOC, to officially open the Games. No other politician is allowed to play any role whatsoever, not even during medal ceremonies.”
While the IOC “recognizes and upholds” human rights as enshrined in the Olympics charter, it has “neither the mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country.” This must “rightfully remain the legitimate role of governments and respective intergovernmental organizations.” the spokesperson added.
Calls to snub next year’s events have grown in intensity in recent months. In February, a letter to world leaders signed by more than 180 campaign groups, including Free Tibet and the World Uyghur Congress, warned that the prestige of the Beijing Games would only “embolden” the ruling Communist Party’s “appalling rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent,” including its occupation of Tibet, aggressive actions in Hong Kong and its detention and political indoctrination of millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“The Winter Games 2022 being awarded to China was a slap on the face of every Uyghur, Tibetan, Southern Mongolian, Hong Konger, Taiwanese and Chinese democracy activists,” Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager of the World Uyghur Congress, said in a statement. “Our sufferings were completely dismissed by the IOC. It’s now up to the governments to act on it, and show some decent humanity by boycotting a genocide Olympics.’’
But China will likely push back against a boycott with equal fervor, according to political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. Beijing has previously rejected claims that it has committed genocide against Uyghurs, describing them as “malicious lies” meant to “smear China.”
“China will punish countries that boycott the Games with political sanctions and commercial retaliation, but with much greater severity in the athletic boycott scenario,” analysts wrote in a report published Thursday.
Businesses are caught in a quandary, Eurasia Group said. Those that do not boycott the Games risk reputation damage with Western consumers. Those that do, on the other hand, could lose access to the growth engine that is China’s lucrative 1.4-billion-people-strong market.
“Campaigners have focused on Beijing’s targeted repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, which some Western governments have called ‘genocide,’” the report added. “Calls to shun what activists label the ‘genocide Games’ will grow as the opening ceremony approaches, increasing risks for governments, corporates and investors—whether they decide to boycott or not.”
It remains unclear what an Olympics boycott would mean for the bottom lines of brands such as Adidas, Nike, Puma and Ralph Lauren, which are part of a billion-dollar ecosystem of advertising, retail and sponsorship deals that translate into marketing gold. The Tokyo Olympic Games, which were postponed due to the pandemic, are on track to take place this summer, which could offer some relief. The last time the Games were canceled was in 1944, at the height of World War II.
“Global sponsorships, such as the Olympics, can be key contributors to brand performance,” Alison Bringé, chief managing officer at Launchmetrics, a data-analytics firm, told Sourcing Journal. “Not only do brands benefit from the exposure that the partner voice provides, but their owned media channels thrive as well.”
A single Instagram post by watchmaker Omega during the 2018 Games, Launchmetrics estimated, generated a total of $118,000 in so-called “media impact value,” or 14 times that of its usual social-media placements.
In a regular, noncontroversial year, sponsorship of the Olympics is a ”great way to emphasize brand values aligning with what the sponsorship represents: respect and excellence,” Bringé said. “Moreover, it makes the consumer feel proud to be a part of the brand, together, upholding the values that this partnership stands for.”
The Uyghur crisis may haunt the Olympics in other ways. In 2019, the IOC awarded a Chinese textiles company that openly touts its use of Xinjiang cotton with a uniform contract for the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics. Hengyuanxiang Group, which was a sponsor of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, would supply uniforms such as those worn in ceremonies or by IOC staff.
The IOC told Axios that the cotton used in the production of the Olympic uniforms won’t originate in Xinjiang. In several listings on e-commerce platforms such as JD.com and Taobao, however, Hengyuanxiang Group, which has an affiliated factory in Xinjiang, labels numerous products as containing Xinjiang cotton.
Earlier Tuesday, Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said that President Biden should demand the relocation of the 2022 Olympics to the United States.
“President Biden has immense power to help facilitate the relocation of the games, which I have urged him to do,” Scott said in a statement. “It is now time for President Biden to lead America and the world and make clear that the United States will never tolerate the oppression and genocide occurring in Communist China.”