The 2020 Summer Olympics are set to begin in Tokyo next week, having been postponed a year on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moving forward with the games is highly controversial even now, with spectators barred from most events amid rising COVID cases and the entire city of Tokyo under a new state of emergency. Public-health experts are raising concerns about the virus spreading at the games, while polling shows that Japanese citizens overwhelmingly oppose their country hosting the events this summer. Meanwhile, there’s already massive international outrage over next February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, as China continues to commit human-rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims and undo democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. The European parliament and some prominent American politicians are calling for diplomatic boycotts of the Beijing games. What do these tensions mean for the future of the Olympics?

Jules Boykoff—a professor of politics and government at Pacific University, a former Olympic soccer player, and the author of four books on Olympics—says politics surrounding the games is nothing new, but the Olympics are “mired in a crisis the likes of which they haven't seen in a long time.” Beyond Tokyo and Beijing, Boykoff argues, the games face “fundamental issues” that include running over budget, militarizing public space, and fueling gentrification. Boykoff believes diplomatic boycotts of next year’s games are possible, maybe even probable, though he doubts they’d have any material effect on the Chinese government without accompanying economic sanctions. What might have more impact, he thinks, would be athlete-driven boycotts, but he sees those only as a remote possibility, even in the “age of athlete empowerment.”

Graham Vyse: What’s the significance of the European parliament calling for diplomatic officials to boycott the Beijing games? Is there an important shift taking place in the politics of the Olympics?

Jules Boykoff: The political history of the Olympics shows that the possibility of boycotts crops up periodically on different levels. You’re talking about a diplomatic boycott—more of a symbolic boycott, which won't have any material effect on the way the games happen. There's also the possibility, although it's a distant one, that you'd see an athlete boycott, either imposed by politicians or led by athletes.

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