Skiers will ski, curlers will curl and medals will be awarded as usual at the Beijing Winter Olympics this February, but the absence of any U.S. government officials will probably be a diplomatic sore for the host nation and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The American diplomatic boycott, especially on the back of claims of Chinese human rights “atrocities,” is a blow to the Games, which the IOC loves to promote as a driver for world peace and cooperation.
“Anybody who is thinking about a boycott should learn this lesson from history,” IOC President Thomas Bach has said.
“A sports boycott serves nothing. It’s only hurting the athletes, and it’s hurting the population of the country because they are losing the joy to share, the pride, the success with their Olympic team.”
Opening ceremonies traditionally attract several dozen heads of state and dignitaries, using the Games as an opportunity to cement, improve or forge relations in a relaxed setting.
More than 80 state leaders and royals attended the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which was seen as China’s global coming-out party when ties to the United States were far less strained than now.
George W. Bush was present in Beijing, the last time a U.S. President attended any Olympics. U.S. first lady Jill Biden attended the delayed Tokyo Games earlier this year, amid strict coronavirus protocols. Vice President Mike Pence attended the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games opening ceremony in South Korea.
The 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony drew some 100 heads of state as the first Games since the 2008 financial downturn created a massive international feel-good buzz.
Even at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, with the conflict with neighboring Ukraine looming, more than 60 heads of state, including many European Union countries, attended despite calls to snub the event.
There has been only a limited call for an athlete boycott of the Olympics of the type that caused such reputational and financial damage in the 1970s and 80s — though the Winter Games have never been similarly affected.
More than 30, mostly African, countries boycotted the 1976 Games in Montreal in protest at the participation of New Zealand, which at the time retained sporting links with South Africa – a country banned from the Olympic movement because of Apartheid.
Four years later the U.S. led a massive boycott of the Moscow Olympics because of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, while in 1984 Russia, the Eastern bloc and its allies returned the snub by boycotting the Los Angeles Games.
Since then, the Olympics has been on a relatively even keel but the scars remain and the specter of a repeat is something the IOC, and leading federation heads such as World Athletics President Sebastian Coe, try to beat down at every mention.