2022 Beijing Winter Olympics / Paralympics – sporting sanctions should not be used to protest against China’s human rights record

by Greg Blood

The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China has been reported to call for China to be stripped of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and Paralympics due to  the country’s increasingly poor human rights record. This made me reflect on two instances of the Australian Government using sporting boycotts/sanctions – boycott of 1980 Moscow Olympics and banning South African sporting teams due to apartheid regime.

Both sporting boycotts/sanctions did not have the desired impact – history highlights that it is economic/financial sanctions that have the greatest impact.

Recently, I researched the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott for a presentation and this has given me a greater understanding of sporting boycotts/sanctions. If you are interested in the 1980 boycott, please read Lisa Forrest’s excellent book Boycott.

In early 1980, the Fraser Liberal/Country Party Government argued for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979. The Australian Olympic Federation (AOF – now Australian Olympic Committee) was placed under immense pressure by the Fraser Government to boycott the Games. The AOF eventually decided 6-5 to attend the Moscow Olympics and carry the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony. The proposed sporting boycott bitterly split the Australian sporting community.

The Australian Labor Party led by Bill Hayden argued against the boycott and stated that athletes were being asked to pay a heavy price. It should be noted at the time the Australian Government provide extremely limited assistance to Olympic athletes – it primarily assisted the AOF in sending the Australian team to the Olympics.

Bill Hayden in Press Release on 26 May 1980. highlighted some of the problems with the Australian Government’s demands for a boycott. Relevant comments included

when the Olympics are over, regardless of any boycott, the Russians will still be in Afghanistan, and the Fraser Government won’t have a policy of any sort to get them out.” and “where money is made, in feeding, clothing, and arming the Russian Army through the sale of Australian wool, meat, wheat and minerals, Mr Fraser’s Government supports the principle that business must continue.”

Australian Government was willing to use athletes – the soft option and not hard option such as trade bans to highlight their opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was about ‘symbolism’ not ‘substance’

Interestingly, Malcolm Fraser in 2008 interview reflected on his demands for a boycott:

“”I never thought it was good policy because policy, to be successful, needs to be sustainable“, “Not only was it divisive between different sports, but also within sports” and “the individual choices that were made created divisions within sports and between sports. It’s not something I would want to see repeated.

In the aftermath of the proposed boycott, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) primarily through its President John Coates had the objective to cease to receive direct Australian Government funding as this would ensure that it was independent of  Australian Government influence. Ironically, Australian athletes after the Moscow Olympics received increased Australian Government financial support including the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport in 1981 and increased athlete support programs.

It is also worthwhile looking at the effectiveness of sporting bans on South African teams and athletes. South Africa was banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from 1964 Olympics after the South African Government insisted its team would not be racially integrated and in 1970 it was expelled from the Olympic movement.

The Whitlam Labor Government, elected in December 1972, placed a government ban on sporting tours involving South African teams. This decision was maintained by the governments of Malcolm Fraser (1975–83) and Bob Hawke (1983–91). Australia was to become an important nation in the resolve to isolate South Africa whilst racial discrimination was part of its society.

South Africa subverted the bans by organising rebel tours including the cricket tours involving Australian cricketers in 1985–86 and 1986–87. Australia like many countries also established trade bans including in 1986 when it banned the import of coal, iron, steel and agricultural products from South Africa.  Gareth Evans, Hawke Government’s Foreign Minister in 2013 reflected that:

The trade sanctions, the sports boycotts, the cultural boycotts, were psychologically important, but frankly, were not making too much impact on the regime,” and “What made the difference were the financial sanctions, getting the world’s banks to stop the flow of capital into the country. The wheels that made the economy turn“.

So, it was international financial sanctions that led to the eventual demise of South African apartheid laws in 1991.

The AOC might no longer receive financial support from the Australian Government but its member sports now rely heavily on significant financial support from the Australian Government. It could be argued that the Australian Government in 2020 should have more influence in demanding national sports organisations to adhere to its demands such as possible sporting boycotts/sanctions.

If the Australian members of Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (Liberal – Andrew Hastie, Tim Wilson, Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, James Paterson and Amanda Stoker and Labor – Kimberley Kitching and Raff Ciccone) are really concerned with China’s human rights record they should push for effective economic/financial sanctions before asking sports organisations and their athletes to support their demands.

By hosting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics / Paralympics, China will expose itself to greater international attention and there is the strong likelihood that athletes may utilise the event to express their views regarding human rights. Recent article by David Rowe in The Conversation highlights that the Olympics have a history of athlete protests.

Finally, it is my view that economic and financial restrictions have more impact than sport sanctions in changing a nation’s philosophes and actions.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: