There is a growing chorus of protesters demanding that there should be some form of boycott of the upcoming Chinese-hosted Winter Olympic Games. There is a similar momentum building up around some form of human rights sanctions in respect of the football World Cup due next year in Qatar.
I was, however, pleased to hear Lord Coe, one of Britain’s great Olympians and also the main driving force behind the successful 2012 London Olympics, defending the unfashionable position that such boycotts are both politically counterproductive and damaging to sport.
International sport, he argued, was a powerful force for good, and not to be used as a tool for governments’ foreign policy.
Coe was being put on the spot on the Today programme amid the clamour to “do something” about the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai who temporarily disappeared after making allegations on Chinese social media of sexual assault by a powerful former Chinese official, Zhang Gaoli.
She said that she had a sexual encounter with Zhang 10 years ago and three years later he allegedly raped her. To publish such accusations against a powerful figure clearly required great courage. It is part of a wider social #MeToo movement in China in which many women have sought to make public cases of sexual assault and harassment.
Mr Zhang is a very prominent figure who served for five years as vice-premier (2012-17) and as a member of the seven-man Standing Committee which is, under Xi Jinping, the apex of political power in China. He was a key economic reformer who had, roughly, the status of a British chancellor. Powerful, indeed.
China is not the only country where powerful male leaders have been accused of assaulting women. President Trump survived numerous such accusations. But the Chinese system is different because of the ability of the authorities to censor the accuser and mobilise state media around sensitive matters of this kind. Peng Shuai’s social media posts were quickly taken down by censors. References to her were erased from China’s “Great Firewall” internet.
It appears that Peng Shuai is alive and well. But whether she can continue her tennis career on the international circuit is far from clear. Nor is it clear what will happen to Mr Zhang. If the regime (in effect, President Xi) were to judge that he was a national embarrassment, he could find himself accused of corruption and spend the rest of his life behind bars. It is unlikely, however, that a regime loyalist would be thrown under a bus to assuage foreign critics. And that takes us to the role of protest, and any potential boycott.
There is little doubt that the involvement of leading tennis stars such as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, the World Tennis Association and, more cautiously, the International Olympic Committee, has made a big difference in protecting Peng Shuai. China’s vast middle class is an avid consumer of televised world sports and China values its status as an emerging sporting superpower.
The regime’s instincts to protect “one of its own” will have to be balanced against public opinion which, while still not allowed democratic expression, is always watched very carefully. While we do not yet know the future for either Peng Shuai or Mr Zhang, the forceful statements of the world’s tennis stars and their association have, at least, prevented the Chinese authorities from burying the story.
In the West, we increasingly take it for granted that politics and sport are interwoven. Marcus Rashford has had more impact recently on government school policy than the opposition parties. “Taking the knee” has become mainstream and accepted widely as a statement of footballers’ opposition to racism, despite the initial grumbling from some Conservative politicians and despite the painful contrast between racially mixed teams on the pitch and the almost monochromatic management (and referees).
The most vivid expression of anger at racism in cricket was produced in the testimony of Azeem Rafiq to the cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee. Sportsmen influence politicians and politicians influence sport (not least because they establish the framework of regulation and financing).
But it is a big step then to argue that sport should be used to impose political sanctions on governments we do not like. Individual sportsmen and women may choose to advertise their views – as has happened in the case of Peng Shuai – but formal boycotts are different.
The exception which, arguably, proves the rule was apartheid South Africa. In that case the South Africans were not merely using racial segregation in the choice of their own teams, but it was affecting racially mixed visiting sides. The white South African public was also very susceptible to the loss of international sporting fixtures, especially rugby. My house in Twickenham was a base for Stop the Tour campaigners. The pressure from anti-apartheid campaigners enjoyed such wide support that South African tours became impossible and this contributed to the sense of isolation and eventual demise of apartheid.
By contrast, the Cold War boycotts were altogether less successful. The Olympic Games in Moscow and Atlanta were greatly diminished for participants and spectators without any discernible impact on the broader power play and clash of ideologies. A favourable contrast was this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo when the IOC sponsored Russian athletes to ensure that the games were fully inclusive even after Russia was banned for state-sponsored drug cheating.
Attempts to boycott the Chinese Winter Olympics – over the Peng Shuai affair or wider human rights concerns – would almost certainly deepen the incipient cold war with China, polarising the world into “pro” and “anti” China camps.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices newsletter by clicking here
Advocates of a boycott of the Winter Olympics are arguing that there should be a “diplomatic boycott” rather than a sporting boycott. In any event the world’s top skaters and skiers cannot be stopped from attending and would rightly resent attempts to do so. President Biden has been hinting at the diplomatic route. It is difficult, however, to believe that the absence of a few men in suits and politicians from the opening ceremony will persuade Xi to embark on a human rights revolution. It is more likely to be seen as a petulant snub, dampening the sound of western voices in Beijing rather than amplifying them. And the disengagement of professional diplomats at a time of tension would not be helpful either.
The same points could be made about Qatar; we may not be talking about superpower confrontation but the politics of the Gulf are poisonous and attempts to spoil the World Cup would unleash them in dangerous ways.
What recent events have told us is that sport and its stars have an enormous amount of “soft power” through their global audiences. Whether in the case of Peng Shuai or racism in Britain we have seen that soft power used to powerful effect. Don’t let the politicians ruin it.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies