African countries have ignored Washington's call for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, instead expressing support for China's hosting of the Games and warning that the event should not be a platform for politics.

What's the purpose of sending diplomats to the Olympic games?

I am trying to understand if it's simply a gesture of good will, so that the countries hosting the games also respond in kindness or if there's some other purpose of doing this that I am not aware of.


4 Answers 4


The Olympics is and always has been — even back to the ancient Greeks — a political event, meant to pit the prowess of one nation against another in something other than warfare. Hosting the Olympics is a serious matter: it positions the hosting regime as a central player in international politics, and gives them a chance to show off their artistic, cultural, and economic wealth above and beyond their successes in the contests. staging a diplomatic boycott is an effective snub to the hosting nation, suggesting that (for one reason or another) the hosting nation is not qualified to stand among the world's leading nations.

Honestly, it's a bit like hosting a large, fancy, old-fashioned dinner party. Hosts invite the 'very best' guests, because guests with high social standing confer high social standing on the host. If a guest with high social standing rejects the invitation, it can humiliate the host, because it can appear that the host has been dismissed as inferior. It's all a bit juvenile — any eighth-grader would understand the game intuitively — but it is effective nonetheless.

  • 31
    All international politics can be summarized as "a bit juvenile." At least until actual war breaks out, anyway. It may look silly, but it is better than the alternative.
    – Kevin
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 22:25
  • 23
    @Kevin "My army can beat up your army."
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 23:08
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    "a political event, meant to pit the prowess of one nation against another in something other than warfare" – I don't believe it is a coincidence that the Modern Pentathlon looks pretty much like a basic training for a soldier or rather, an officer, considering the inclusion of riding and fencing. At least, an officer from the 1800s. (Obstacle running, fencing, shooting, swimming, riding.) Same for biathlon. Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 8:03
  • 4
    @JörgWMittag Maybe it needs an update to include sitting at a screen and controlling a drone at the other end of the world ;-)
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 8:34
  • 6
    @JörgWMittag That was the explicit inspiration (the skills needed for an officer at the time), when the sport was created in homage to the classical pentathlon. Although I think that particular origin is pretty separate to the fact of the Olympics being a diplomatic/political affair (the football/soccer World Cup is also a diplomatic/political affair too, after all).
    – dbmag9
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 16:05

Diplomatic boycott doesn't mean not sending diplomats to the Game, it means letting the atheletes play at the game, but not sending any of the important politicians to attend the opening and ending ceremoneies. The attending of these politicians are signs of supporting the government that is hosting the Game. The higher the position the politician holds, the stronger the support it would be. Proof: https://www.espn.com/olympics/story/_/id/32831100/what-exactly-diplomatic-boycott-beijing-olympics

There are no "good will" in international politics. There is only interest. African nations choose China instead of US because China can provide more benefit to them than US. So they send important political figures to Beijing Winter Olympics to show their support for China in exchange for Chinese support for their economic development.

  • 2
    what's the difference between a diplomat and an "important politician"?
    – minseong
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 1:56
  • By important politician, I mean someone very close to the top of a nation's hierachy, like secretary of state, premier, prime minister, the prince/princess, someone like that
    – Faito Dayo
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 3:33
  • The first sentence of this answer is so strange, I still don't get it. So it's specifically a boycott by high-ranking diplomats? But low-ranking diplomats have not been asked by the US to participate in the boycott?
    – minseong
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 12:09
  • 1
    @theonlygusti A diplomat and a politician is not the same thing. A career diplomat does not have to be a politician at all. Some diplomatic placements are given to politicians who ended their political career as a gift, but most are given to career diplomats. High ranking politicians are people close to the government of their country. High ranking members of political parties, members of the government, leaders of parliament chambers... Diplomats are people placed in foreign countries to maintain diplomatic relations between their home country and the country they were placed in. Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 14:13
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    @RedSonja - that's more of an embassy function, than diplomats themselves who are just one type of an employee of the embassy.
    – Davor
    Commented Jan 26, 2022 at 15:26

Sometimes, sending diplomats to attend the Olympics can be an attempt to influence the host country using a carrot approach rather than the stick approach of a diplomatic boycott. Consider the policy of the UK government with regard to the 2008 Beijing Olympics - Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell responded to this in the House of Commons:

Mr. Peter Bone
Question 1. Whether she plans to attend the Beijing Olympics.

Tessa Jowell
I shall speak very quickly, Mr. Speaker.

I plan to attend the whole of the Olympic games and part of the Paralympic games, including both closing ceremonies, with the handover to London, at which point London becomes host city for both the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

Mr. Bone
I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that we have more chance of achieving human rights reforms in China if we engage with the Chinese than if we boycott the Olympics?

Tessa Jowell
I entirely agree.


Tom Brake
Amnesty International recently reported that the current wave of oppression in China is occurring not in spite of the Olympics but because of it. Does the Minister intend to attend the Beijing Olympics regardless of China’s clear breach of its commitments to the International Olympic Committee?

Tessa Jowell
In practice, the commitments made by China to the IOC were specifically about increasing press freedom. Eighteen months ago, I secured, as did other colleagues in negotiation with counterparts, the free movement of accredited and non-accredited journalists in the run-up to the Olympics. That is a specific and important freedom, which we must now ensure continues after the games in continuing dialogue with China.

Of course, this 'softer' policy could have been influenced by the fact that the UK was to host the Games in 2012.

  • 2
    It could also have been influenced by the China of 2008 being rather different than the China of 2022. China had been making significant progress towards openness in the 1990s and 2000s. In the 2010s (and 2020s so far,) it's mostly been going backwards.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 17:33

[A diplomatic boycott] means the countries will not send any delegates to the Games. These figures are usually high-ranking politicians or members of a country's royal family, and typically appear at the opening and closing ceremonies and some of the competitions. The Olympic Games have historically been viewed by nations as an opportunity for world leaders to meet.


  • While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review
    – divibisan
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 14:26
  • @divibisan The essential part of the text is included here and it does not appear that it was edited after your review. "Link-only answer" is supposed to be used for exactly that, answers that consist of only a link without providing the relevant text in the answer itself.
    – reirab
    Commented Jan 27, 2022 at 17:30

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