SNAPSHOT: US joint boycott of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics poses threat to commercial viability of 2021 Tokyo Olympics
- The suggestion by a junior US State Department spokesperson on Tuesday (6 April) that the Biden administration may be considering a boycott of the February 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, part of Washington's response to Beijing’s human rights record and increasingly assertive foreign and defence policies, is certain to have raised further concerns over the already strained commercial viability of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games.
- US State Department spokesperson Ned Price, in response to a question at a press conference regarding a possible boycott, replied that it was an option that had been discussed by the Biden administration, noting that ‘a co-ordinated approach will be not only in our interest, but also in the interest of our allies and partners.’
- Then on Wednesday (7 April) Beijing threatened Washington with an unspecified ‘robust Chinese response’ if it went forward with a boycott of the Winter Olympics. Beijing also characterised the move as an attempt to ‘politicise the Games’ that will only damage the interests of participating athletes.
- The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) on 7 April restated its opposition to a boycott of the event, saying that athletes should not be used as ‘political pawns’.
- No major corporate sponsors of the Beijing Olympics have so far withdrawn from the event despite pressure campaigns by Uyghur activists. Campaigners have sent letters to firms including AirBnB urging them to cut ties, along with social media campaigns suggesting that sponsors are turning a blind eye to alleged human rights abuses. Activists are attempting to reframe the event as the ‘Genocide Games’, with other sponsors such as Allianz, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Intel, Visa International, Omega, Atos, and Panasonic also likely to be targeted.
- Regardless as to whether Price’s remarks were part of an orchestrated ‘play’ or an unguarded comment, they have clearly triggered a response from Beijing that may jeopardise the 2021-22 Olympic events.
- The Chinese government is likely to view, with some reason, any move by the US and its allies to boycott the winter Games as a direct threat to its international and domestic status. Unless the US offers open assurances that its athletes will participate in the 2022 Beijing Games, China may well counter by boycotting the Tokyo Olympics.
- The removal of China from the contest would greatly, quite possibly terminally, damage the viability of the Tokyo Games as a commercial event as Beijing would also be expected to bar any related broadcast media coverage of events in the country. This, in turn, would lose advertising exposure by foreign companies into what they will view as one of their main markets. US broadcaster NBC, which holds the media rights to the Tokyo Games, already lost an estimated USD1.2 billion in ad revenue due to postponement of the Tokyo Games alone.
- China could also be expected to act against any country it viewed as supporting a US-led boycott, further increasing the already high level of tension and mistrust between Beijing and a growing number of capitals around the world as alliances and allegiances are reformed and tested.
- From an audience and consumer perspective, the Games are likely to be less profitable due to boycotts by Western consumers, who may refuse to follow or support the event and its sponsors. Civil society groups within Japan have increased Uyghur awareness campaigns and stepped up pressure on Tokyo to respond against alleged genocide in China’s Xinjiang region. Tokyo remains hesitant to do so to avoid damaging crucial trade relations with China. Similar consumer boycotts are therefore likely by Japan and other Western-allied countries.
- Organisations that cut ties with the Beijing Olympics over the Uyghur issue are almost certain to face backlash in the form of consumer boycotts in China. A number of Western retailers including H&M recently faced boycotts by Chinese consumers following a patriotic media campaign that drew attention to their past statements on not sourcing Xinjiang cotton over alleged human rights violations. The campaign followed Xinjiang-related sanctions by several Western countries. Chinese consumer boycotts are also likely if the Olympic torch relay is disrupted by Uyghur activists. Protests of the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics relay by Tibetan independence advocates, human rights and animal rights activists, and legal online gambling activists, caused disruption along various parts of the route in Europe and North America. Disruption in France resulted in Chinese consumers threatening retaliation against French businesses; a boycott of French supermarket retailer Carrefour also involved demonstrations in several major Chinese cities.
- Although the Biden administration has placed a greater emphasis on human rights, the possibility of a government-initiated boycott of the Beijing Olympics by Washington and its allies is assessed as low in likelihood.
- A boycott of the Beijing Games is particularly unlikely given almost certain collateral economic damage caused to close ally Japan and its Olympic events. Human rights issues are likely to be disaggregated from international sporting events despite pressure from civil society organisations to boycott the event.
- Attendance at the Beijing Games also remains doubtful given current forecasts that international travel will remain restricted until at least spring 2022 as China slowly moves toward achieving 70 per cent herd immunity to COVID-19 under its immunisation programme.