In the Biden administration’s most direct comments yet connecting human rights abuses in China to the upcoming Beijing Games, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Tuesday that a boycott is “something that we certainly wish to discuss” in coordination with U.S. allies. He was not clear on what that boycott might entail, or whether it would involve athletes themselves.
That said, the Olympics in China are becoming a hot political topic on both sides of the aisle. Republican senators including Rick Scott and Jim Inhofe have pressed for the Games to be moved elsewhere, while Republican colleague Mitt Romney has advocated for an economic and diplomatic boycott that still allows for U.S. athletes to compete. The Biden administration has repeatedly called the Chinese treatment of its Uighur minority a genocide, and has promised to hold the government accountable for its actions.
“We have consistently said, when it comes to our concerns with the government in Beijing, including Beijing’s egregious human rights violations, its conduct of genocide in the case of Xinjiang, what the United States does is meaningful, what the United States does will have impact, but everything that we do that brings along our allies and partners will have all the more influence with Beijing,” Price said. “So that is why the Department of State, as part of our thinking on the Beijing Olympics, is engaging with partners, with allies, to coordinate closely on decisions and approaches to the government in Beijing.”
Price later said on Twitter that the State Department doesn’t have any announcement regarding the Games and that 2022 “remains a ways off.”
The comments leave a lot of uncertainty. It’s unclear if the boycott discussions would include athletes, or if it is more of the hybrid proposed by Romney in a New York Times op-ed last month. It’s also unclear how much authority the U.S. government has to determine Team USA’s participation—the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee is a private entity that does not receive direct funding from the government.
U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee board chair Susanne Lyons said the organization hopes to avoid any boycotts. “We at the USOPC oppose athlete boycotts because they have been shown to negatively impact athletes while not effectively addressing global issues in the past,” Lyons said at Team USA’s media summit on Wednesday. “They also place, honestly, unfair pressure on our sponsors who provide the major financial support for our athletes.”
A representative for the IOC didn’t respond directly to an inquiry about the organization’s reaction, and a U.S. State Department official didn’t answer a question about whether the boycott discussion referenced by Price would include or exclude athletes.
China hosted the Summer Games in 2008, an event that was billed as the country’s promise to fully join an international community wary of its government’s absolute rule. Thirteen years later, the government has been accused of killing or interning thousands of Uighurs in Western China, and has also faced criticism for its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Those protests showed just how complicated the Chinese government’s actions can be for a sports world that has turned increasingly toward the world’s most populous country for investors and new fans. A tweet from then-Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey supporting the protestors launched a crisis for the NBA that has cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. The 2022 Olympics are scheduled to be held next February.
(This story has been updated with comments from USOPC head Susanne Lyons in the seventh paragraph and responses from the IOC and U.S. State Department in the eighth paragraph.)