The Biden administration announced Monday it will diplomatically boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics in protest of the Chinese government’s ongoing human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region.
American athletes will still be allowed to participate in the Olympics, which will run from Feb. 4-20.
“We will not send any diplomatic or official representation to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and the Paralympic Games given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.
While the United States is breaking with tradition by not sending a high-level official delegation of senior officials and other dignitaries, there will be a lower-level working diplomatic presence at the games for the purposes of looking out for the hundreds of American athletes and their coaching teams who will be traveling to China.
“Our top priority anywhere in the world, even when we have profound disagreements and take profound objection to what may be going on in certain countries is the safety and security of the American people,” Price said. “We do intend to provide consular and diplomatic security services to ensure that our athletes, coaches, trainers, staff associated with the U.S. Olympic team, that they are secure, that they have access to American citizen services that we provide as a routine matter."
Ensuring working-level diplomatic and consular support for American Olympians at the games will be key, Rob Housman, a former Clinton administration official, who helped negotiate reforms and handled crises at prior Olympics, said in an interview.
“At every games, something happens,” Housman said, noting a range of past incidents including revelations of doping by some U.S. track athletes at the 2000 Sydney games and U.S. swimmers running afoul of Brazilian authorities at the 2016 games for making false robbery claims. “If you are going to send athletes, you need to have a delegation there to protect them.”
There is broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a diplomatic boycott of the games. This summer, the Senate passed a comprehensive China competition policy bill (S 1260) that included a provision requiring a diplomatic boycott of the games.
“We applaud the president’s decision to withhold any diplomatic presence from the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Beijing,” Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said in a joint statement. “America must not lend its credibility to the Chinese Communist Party. … Never again must the Olympics be awarded to a nation which so blatantly violates the human rights of its own citizens.”
Price said he expects other countries in the coming days and weeks will be making announcements about the level of their participation in the Olympics though he wouldn’t name any of those nations.
“What we know today is that there are many countries around the world, including many of our closest allies, who share these concerns,” the spokesman said. “I fully expect we’ll be hearing more from other countries but I will let other countries speak to their sovereign decision when it comes to their representation at the games.”
Still, many Republicans are urging even more hawkish steps than those announced on Monday, such as pressuring U.S. companies who are sponsoring the games to pull their financial support.
Price said the administration has made clear to the American private sector, including in behind-the-scenes meetings, the extent of the abuses that are ongoing against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang.
“We want the private sector to be fully cognizant and to operate with full information with regard to what is transpiring in Xinjiang,” he said. “It is not in this country, unlike in other countries, the role of government to dictate the practices that the private sector should adopt.
Some GOP members like Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., have gone even further, urging a full boycott of the Olympics where no American athletes would be allowed to participate.
“Look, they have the Olympics coming out, what I have dubbed the ‘genocide Olympics’ and have called for a full boycott of the Olympics. That will be a massive propaganda platform for them,” Waltz said in a Friday interview with Fox News. “We need to remind folks that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invaded the Ukraine just two months after the Sochi Olympics in 2014.”
The last time the United States carried out a full Olympics boycott was in 1980 when the Summer Olympics took place in Moscow. Washington was protesting the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.