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With Human Rights Sidelined, Calls Grow for Boycott of 2022 Winter Olympics

Multi colored Olympic rings forged into a black wrought iron gate which is snow covered

Photo Source: James Tworow, Olympic Rings, FLICKR (Feb. 8, 2007) (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By: Elizabeth Kletsel*                                                                  Posted: 10/03/2021


Activists argue that the 2022 Beijing Games should be boycotted over China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang as well as other regions.[1]  Such criticisms have been ongoing since the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, when the Olympic Games faced similar protests and boycotts from activists based on China’s human rights violations in Tibet.[2]  However, the current calls for boycotts highlight the ambiguity of the legal status of the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) and the role of international law in the Olympic games.[3]

Boycott Background

In 2020, the IOC proclaimed that “the practice of sport is a human right.”[4]  For many years, China has faced intense criticism for its treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjian region, Beijing’s repression in Tibet, and its restriction on freedoms in Hong Kong.[5]  Therefore, the IOC’s decision to allow China to host the 2022 Olympic Games has been highly criticized for failing to promote human rights.[6]

Legal Status of IOC

The IOC is a nonprofit organization with “members from over fifty countries.”[7]  Specifically, the IOC is a nongovernmental organization (“NGO”), a type of organization that often has recognized legal status under international agreements.[8]  On September 17, 1981, the Swiss Federal Council published a decree that affirmed the IOC’s status as an international person.[9]  Additionally, in 2020, the Olympic Charter stated that the IOC “is an international non-governmental not-for-profit [organization], of unlimited duration, in the form of an association with the status of a legal person, [recognized] by the Swiss Federal Council.”[10]

However, despite this status as a legal person, the IOC cannot compel foreign government compliance.[11]  Instead, the IOC has “supreme authority” over the organizations and athletes that participate in the Olympic games.[12]  The IOC is primarily responsible for choosing host cities for the Olympic Games and ensuring that those host cities follow the rules of the Olympic Charter.[13]   

Legal Framework for Host Countries

Foreign countries choose to participate in and host the Olympic Games on a voluntary basis.[14]  Countries that decide to participate in the Olympic games submit themselves to the authority of the IOC and the Olympic Charter.[15]  The Olympic Charter itself has the effect of customary international law and therefore has authoritative force.[16]  In addition to the Olympic Charter, the Helsinki Accords further affirm the Charter’s goals.[17]  As to the field of sports, the Helsinki Accords encourage countries to create sporting competitions on the basis of established international rules and regulations.[18]

IOC’s Role in Combating Human Rights Violations

The process that determines the host of an Olympic Games is a multi-year bidding process.[19]  The country chosen to host the Olympics expects economic windfalls, and the opportunity to host is regarded as a high honor.[20]  Given the competition for host duties, it is expected that the IOC award the hosting honor to countries that follow their Olympic Charter provisions for human rights and advocating peace.[21]

Despite these expectations, human rights issues often arise in Olympic host countries.[22] For instance, in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Games, China forced the relocation of low-income individuals to perform demolitions to make room for Olympic infrastructure.[23]  Prior to the 2008 Beijing Games, the IOC argued that awarding hosting honor for the Games to China would persuade the country to commit to change their human rights record.[24]  However, following the 2008 Games, it was clear that China had continued to commit human rights violations.[25]

Previous IOC Attempts at Reform

Human rights concerns have been at the forefront of several Olympic Games.[26]  For instance, during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia faced strong criticism for human rights violations.[27]  At the time, Russia was criticized for violations stemming both from the preparation for the Sochi Games and the government’s treatment of its citizenry independent from the Olympics.[28]  These violations included forced evictions to make room for Olympic venues, exploiting and abusing migrant workers to build Olympic venues, and Russia’s discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals.[29]  In response, activists sought to boycott and protest the Sochi Games.[30]  Following this backlash, the IOC announced revisions to the charter to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.[31]  While this was a step forward in attempting to combat anti-LGBTQ+ treatment in Olympic host countries, this revision seemed to do little in regulating host country behavior since the revised section referred to athlete conduct instead of host country conduct.[32]

Contractual Changes for Future Olympic Hosts

After facing criticism, the IOC will now require host city contracts to include commitments to protecting human rights.[33]  Some of these contractual changes include adding human rights provisions to host city contracts beginning in 2024, creating centralized human rights advisory boards, and creating an Advisory Committee on Human Rights.[34]  These contractual changes might allow the IOC to enforce human rights protections within host countries.[35]  However, critics have argued that these changes will not create permanent change and oversight because the Advisory Committee is not permanent and “at bottom, the IOC lacks true enforcement authority.”[36]  While the 2022 Olympics do not contain this provision, the intense scrutiny imposed on the IOC and the new contract language may force change moving forward.[37]

*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2023, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law


[1] See Lindsay Maizland, The Debate Over Boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics, Council on Foreign Rels. (June 16, 2021), (analyzing arguments for and against boycotting 2022 Beijing Olympics in response to allegations of human rights abuses).

[2] See Jeré Longman, Why China Has the Torch, N.Y. Times (Aug. 3, 2008), (explaining backlash of China’s crackdown on Tibet and showing IOC’s previous inability to persuade host countries to improve record on human rights).

[3] See David M. Crane et al., Boycotting Beijing 2022: Accountability for the Next Olympics and Beyond, Just Security (Aug. 23, 2021), (arguing IOC failure to hold China accountable for their human rights violations threatens to destroy legitimacy of Olympic Games).

[4] See Olympic Charter, Int’l Olympic Comm., 1-106, 11 (July 17, 2020),  (stating “Fundamental Principles of Olympism,” which include allowing all individuals possibility of participating in sports free from discrimination).

[5] See Crane et al., surpa note 3 (reviewing allegations of human right violations that China denies); see also Lindsay Maizland, China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Council on Foreign Rels. (Mar. 1, 2021), (detailing Chinese government’s detainment of millions of Uyghurs, which is mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority group living in northwest region of Xinjiang); Lindsay Maizland & Eleanor Albert, Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down, Council on Foreign Rels. (Feb. 17, 2021), (detailing history of China’s relationship with Honk Kong and China’s crackdown on Hong Kong freedoms).

[6] See China: Olympic Committee Fails to Honor Rights Pledge, Hum. Rts. Watch (Feb. 3, 2021), (arguing IOC failed to carry out its due diligence for 2022 Beijing Games by not conducting human rights risk assessment prior to 2022 Games).

[7] See David J. Ettinger, The Legal Status of the International Olympic Committee, 4 Pace Y.B. Int’l L. 97, 98 (1992), (presenting structure of IOC).

[8] See id. at 101 (explaining while international law is primarily concerned with intergovernmental organizations, NGOs also play important role in international law).

[9] See id. at 103 (quoting decree published by Swiss Federal Council, Switzerland’s highest executive body, recognizing importance of IOC and granting IOC “international personality”).

[10] See Olympic Charter, supra note 4 at 31 (defining legal status of IOC).

[11] See Ettinger, supra note 7 at 104 (explaining that IOC’s status as legal person does not grant it complete authority in forcing foreign government compliance).

[12] See Olympic Charter, supra note 4 at 15 (declaring ultimate authority of IOC leadership over all who agree to participate in Olympics , binding them to goal of contributing to “building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport [practiced] in accordance with Olympism and its values”).

[13] See Ettinger, supra note 7 at 99 (summarizing responsibilities of IOC as governing body of Olympic Games).

[14] See Annie Willett, Note, Holding the Best Olympics Ever: The Need for A Permanent and Independent Human Rights Committee to Oversee Olympic Procurements, 49 Pub. Cont. L.J. 123, 128 (2019), (detailing application process for hosting Olympic Games for interested countries).

[15] See id. (“When a city, state, or individual voluntarily commits to the Olympic Games, it accepts a duty to respect any and all IOC rules and regulations and to submit to any related enforcement actions.”).

[16] See Ettinger, supra note 7 at 104 (explaining IOC’s legal person status as recognized by international agreement gives Olympic Charter weight of customary international law).

[17] See id. (articulating Helsinki Accords encourages international agreements to oversee sport competition amongst countries).

[18] See id. (citing to subsection of Helsinki Accords entitled “Sports”).

[19] See Willett, supra note 14 at 128 (detailing decade-long process of bidding to be chosen as Olympic host country).

[20] See Edward Burgo & Fred J. Cromartie, The Benefits of Bidding and Hosting the Olympic Games Are Difficult to Justify Due to the Overall Costs, The Sport J. (Feb. 8, 2018), (detailing benefits expected by Olympic host countries and comparing benefits to costs).

[21] See Willett, supra note 14 at 130 (emphasizing expectations IOC oversee international expectations for host countries supporting human rights).

[22] See id. (articulating root of many human rights violations occurs in host cities due to preparation for hosting games and infrastructure overhauls).

[23] See id. (describing hiring of demolition-relocation companies to coerce residents from homes, imprisoning residents who protested evictions).

[24] See Empty Olympic Promises, N.Y. Times (Feb. 4, 2008), (arguing China failed its commitment to correct human rights violations when awarded hosting duties for 2008 Games).

[25] See id. (detailing China’s imprisonment of dissidents, tightened controls over organizations, and forced displacement of lower income individuals and migrants).

[26] See Willett, supra note 14 at 130 (detailing human rights violations by host countries during 2008 Beijing Olympics, 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games).

[27] See Russia’s Olympic Abuses, Hum. Rts. Watch (Apr. 8, 2013), (detailing human rights abuses against Sochi residents and migrant workers).

[28] See id. (listing several instances of human rights abuses stemming from preparation for Olympic games including Russia’s treatment of citizenry independent from Olympic games).

[29] See id. (describing violations including forced evicition of Sochi residents to make room for Olympic venues, mistreatment of migrant workers through illegal working conditions, crackdown on journalists, encvironmental destruction associated with Olympic construction, discriminatory bill banning promotion of “non-traditional” sexuality).

[30] See Russia: Winter Games Olympic Torch Throws Light on Human Rights Violations, Amnesty Int’l (Oct. 3, 2013), (launching campaign to bring attention to Russia’s human rights violations and hold Russian government accountable).

[31] See Willett, supra note 14 at 136 (explaning public condemntation for Russia’s treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals led IOC’s President to publicly announce Olympic Charter section, 6th Fundamental Principle of Olympism, would be revised to prohibit discrimination on basis of sexual orientation).

[32] See id. (explaining 6th Fundamental Principle of Olympism applies to athletes, not host countries so is therefore not binding on countries with poor human rights track record).

[33] See id. at 126 (detailing changes to host city contract principles to maintain human rights expectations among host country duties).

[34] See id. (explaining variety of ways IOC has acted in attempt to prevent human rights violations in Olympic host cities).

[35] See id. (evaluating usefulness of contractual obligations without proper implementation and monitoring since IOC has yet to establish effective means of ensuring compliance with contractual obligations).

[36] See id. (arguing that while IOC has taken steps to address human rights violations in Olympics host countries, those changes, while “massive steps in the right direction,” are not effective enough to cause true change).

[37] See Stephen Wade, Full-Blown Boycott Pushed for Beijing Olympics, AP News (May 17, 2021), (detailing significant scrutiny of human rights violations in China by activists, athletes, and politicians while emphasisizing IOC’s lack of authority since IOC included human rights requirements for host city contracts starting with 2024 Paris Olympics).