Most Canadians favour boycotting next year’s Beijing Olympics, poll finds

Olympic games are particularly memorable events for children, even if the festivities are held half a world away and, as will be the case during this year’s summer edition, without fans arriving from foreign countries to cheer their athletes on.

The two Summer Olympics that took place after I began to understand sports were abnormal. The United States boycotted the Moscow 1980 games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Canada was one of 65 countries that left athletes at home.

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Four years later, the tables turned, as the 1984 games in Los Angeles were boycotted by the Soviet Union, East Germany and 15 other countries. The official rationale, for most of these nations, was a purported lack of safety for participating athletes.

Children of my generation never got to see the two superpowers compete side-by-side in the Summer Olympics. However, we became aware very early on that the events were political. Even in the tightly scripted Moscow 1980 edition, there was an opportunity for protest, evidenced by “the gesture” of Polish pole vaulter Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz. This was an act of defiance not just against a home crowd that wanted Soviet athlete Konstantin Volkov to defeat him, but also against subjugation.

We are now less than a year away from the next edition of the Winter Olympics, which will be held in Beijing. Plenty has happened since the host city was officially selected in July 2015. Discussions related to China’s human rights record have persisted.

Closer to home, the arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver led to retaliation by the People’s Republic of China. Two Canadians – Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor – have been in confinement over espionage allegations for more than 800 days. When we last asked about the Meng case in May 2020, 75% of Canadians agreed with the way the authorities have handled matters.

In December 2020, only 19% of Canadians held a favourable view of China. Two months later, the House of Commons voted 266-0, with manifest abstentions by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and most members of the federal cabinet, on a resolution that equated China’s treatment of the Uighur minority population to genocide and urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to find a different host for the upcoming Winter Games.

Over the past few months, there have been calls for athletes and Olympic Committees around the world to boycott the games over China’s human rights record. When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians this past weekend, a majority of the country’s residents (54%) think Canada should boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics, while 24% disagree with this course of action and 21% are undecided.

Men (57%) are slightly more likely to favour a boycott of the Winter Games than women (51%). Canadians aged 55 and over are also more likely to recommend Canadian athletes staying away from Beijing (61%) than their counterparts aged 18 to 34 (53%) and aged 35 to 54 (50%).

While there are some regional disparities, no province is home to a majority of residents who feel that Canada’s participation simply must go on as scheduled. Almost three in five Quebecers (59%) align with the idea of a boycott, along with 56% of Albertans, 54% of Ontarians, 53% of British Columbians, 51% of Atlantic Canadians and 50% of Saskatchewanians and Manitobans.

Calls for a boycott of the Beijing games are highest among Canadians who voted for the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the 2019 federal election (62%) ,and are only slightly lower among those who cast ballots for the Liberal Party (59%) and the Conservative Party (57%).

Two-thirds of Canadians of South Asian ancestry (67%) also think a boycott is warranted due to China’s human rights record, along with 56% of Canadians of European origins and 49% of Canadians of East Asian descent.

As Canadians ponder the possibility of a boycott, there will be debates over truncated processes for athletes, the dread of sponsorship obligations and the cost of broadcasting rights. Still, it is remarkable that in a country so decidedly in tune with the Winter Olympics, a majority believes the fanfare is not worth enjoying in the background that the IOC has chosen.

We also asked a couple of questions about the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, which will be held later this year on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadians are siding with the Tokyo organizers, with 65% supporting the decision to ban foreign spectators. However, practically half (49%) believe is it “not safe” to hold the Summer Games later this year, a proportion that rises to 52% among women and to 55% among Canadians aged 55 and over.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted on March 27 and March 28, 2021, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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