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The United States & China at the Olympics 
A SPECIALIZED RESEARCH ARTICLE BY EMILY SCOTT

As entertaining as they are to watch, the Olympics are more than just a sporting event. Since the creation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympics have been used for states to confront rivalries or perceived enemies without direct confrontation with troops. From suspending Germany between the World Wars to U.S.-Soviet tensions playing out on the ice in the 1980 Winter Olympics, the international sporting event has never been able to escape the impact of international affairs. Tracking the various boycotts and controversies can help one understand the complexities of foreign relations, especially when looking at China and the United States. This timeline is a compiled work of all notable Olympics for both the United States and China and includes the international events that affected how the two countries participated or acted at a given Olympics. As the 2022 Beijing Olympics start, keeping in mind the history of U.S.-China relations and the Olympics will enhance your viewing of the Games in a whole new way.

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After the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, collapsed in 1916, the Republic of China was formed by the Kuomintang (KMT). In 1927, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) revolted against the Republic of China government for political power over the Chinese region. 

Aug. 1: Beginning of the Chinese Civil War

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1904

1904 3rd Summer Olympics

Following the massive U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, the 23rd Summer Olympics were boycotted by Eastern Bloc countries in retaliation. Led by the Soviet Union, a total of 14 countries refused to participate in the Olympic Games for this reason. Chinese Taipei competed and China ranked fourth overall, winning a total of 32 medals.

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1924

1924 8th Summer Olympics

This particular Olympics was held in Paris, France, but has some significance to China as the a team under the name of the Republic of China participated in the Opening Ceremony with the intent of competing in the actual games. However, all four of the Chinese athletes withdrew from the competition for reasons unknown.

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1927

1927: Beginning of the Chinese Civil War

After the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, collapsed in 1916, the Republic of China was formed by the Kuomintang (KMT). In 1927, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) revolted against the Republic of China government for political power over the Chinese region. 

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1932

1932 3rd Winter Olympics

Held in Lake Placid, New York, the 3rd Winter Olympic Games follows a similar story as the 3rd Summer Olympics. The United States not only participated in these games, but hosted them as well; meanwhile, China still had yet to compete at any Olympic Games.

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1937

1937 End of Chinese Civil War

The Chinese Civil War finally ended when the Republic of China – led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan and Mao Zedong – leader of the CCP – proclaimed the creation of the People’s Republic of China. 

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1952

1952 15th Summer Olympics

Although held in Helsinki, Finland, the 15th Summer Olympic Games is particularly relevant to Chinese development regarding the Olympics. After the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over the mainland. The Republic of China did continue to compete in the Olympics, but only sent Taiwanese athletes. However, at the Helsinki Olympic Games, not only did the Republic of China send a team but the new People’s Republic of China also competed. The United States participated as usual without any controversy.

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1956

1956 16th Summer Olympics

These Olympic Games, hosted in Melbourne, Australia, was the second time both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China were supposed to compete. However, the People’s Republic of China demanded that the IOC ban the Republic of China from participating. When the IOC ruled that both national Olympic committees could compete, the People’s Republic of China withdrew and boycotted these Olympic Games. In 1958, the People’s Republic of China withdrew from the International Olympic Committee and the Olympics movement altogether. 

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1960 13th Winter Olympics: February 18-28

1960

After almost 30 years, the Winter Olympics was held in the United States once more in Squaw Valley, California. There was no participating team from either the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China as the latter still refused to participate if the Republic of China was allowed. The Republic of China had yet to participate in any Winter Olympic Games and was not prepared to make their Winter Olympic debut. 

1956 16th Summer Olympics

1960 13th Winter Olympics

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1972

1972 11th Winter Olympics

Hosted in Hokkaido, Japan, these were the first Winter Olympics in which any Chinese team competed in. Although the Republic of China participated, no medals were awarded to the team. Meanwhile, the United States won 8 total medals at these Olympic Games.

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1976

1976 21st Summer Olympics

While the United States’ Olympic team traveled to Montreal, Canada, neither the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China made the journey to compete in the 21st Summer Olympics. In attempting to appease both Chinese teams, the IOC ruled that the Republic of China could still compete but only under the name “Chinese Taipei”. Both teams were dissatisfied with this ruling and subsequently boycotted these games. 

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1984

1984 23rd Summer Olympics

Following the massive U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, the 23rd Summer Olympics were boycotted by Eastern Bloc countries in retaliation. Led by the Soviet Union, a total of 14 countries refused to participate in the Olympic Games for this reason. Chinese Taipei competed and China ranked fourth overall, winning a total of 32 medals.

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1980

1980 22nd Summer Olympics

As the first Olympics held in a communist country, these games hosted in Moscow, Soviet Union featured one of the largest Olympic boycotts in history. Spearheaded by the United States, 56 other countries boycotted the Olympics in Moscow over the continued outrage over the Soviet-Afghan War. At the time of writing, this was the only total boycott of the Olympics the United States has conducted. While the Republic of China was still boycotting the Olympics overall, the People’s Republic of China decided to join in the United States’ boycott and thus no American or Chinese athletes participated in the 22nd Summer Olympics. 

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1980

1980 13th Winter Olympics

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of 1979, these Olympic games were particularly tense as the U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off in numerous events. Furthermore, while these Winter Games were underway, U.S. President Jimmy Carter threatened to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics that was to be hosted in Moscow later that year. Making it’s Winter Olympics debut, the People’s Republic of China ended its Olympic boycott after the IOC named them as the only representatives of “China”. However, the Republic of China continued their boycott.

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1979

1979 Soviet Union Invasion of Afghanistan

Although the government in Afghanistan was Communist after a 1978 coup, the Soviet Union feared that the Afghani government was becoming pro-American after some Afghani-Soviet relations fell through. Subsequently, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and initiated a guerilla war with the civilian insurgent groups called the Mujahideen.

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1984 14th Winter Olympics

For the first time since 1952, both the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Taipei (formerly the Republic of China) participated in the Olympic Games simultaneously. The two teams along with the United States journeyed to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina). Chinese Taipei has competed in the Olympics under this name ever since. 

1984

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1993

1993 101st International Olympic Committee Session

Tasked with determining the next round of Olympic host cities, the IOC met in Monte Carlo, Monaco to vote on what countries would receive the honor of hosting the Olympic Games. The two final bids for the 27th Summer Olympics of 2000 were Beijing, China and Sydney, Australia. Sydney won the vote 45-43. The official reason behind the votes is unknown; however, it is assumed that the Human Rights Watch campaign, Stop Beijing, impacted the result. The Stop Beijing campaign emerged after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the human rights violations conducted by the Chinese government. Outraged, China blamed U.S. interference in the vote which fueled the growing anti-American and anti-Western sentiment in China. 

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1996

1996 26th Summer Olympics

Hosted in Atlanta, Georgia, the 26th Summer Olympic Games occurred without international conflict. Both China and Chinese Taipei participated alongside the United States. While these games were not marred by international tensions, the 1996 Olympics are noteworthy for the terrorist attack at Centennial Olympic Park. Part of a slew of terrorist attacks, a pipe bomb was denoted during the Olympic centered festivites killing two and injuring 111. 

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2001

2001 Terrorist Attack on the US: 9/11 

The terrorist organization known as al-Qaeda hijacked four planes in the United States crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon, and one was retaken by passengers and brought down in Pennsylvania. Kickstarting the United States’ War on Terror, this event marked a drastic change in U.S. foreign policy where Washington took on a more aggressive stance towards the Middle East. 

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2002

2002 19th Winter Olympics

Taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah, the 19th Winter Olympics would be the last time an Olympic Game was held in the United States until the 2024 Summer Olympics. With both China and Chinese Taipei competing and the United States preoccupied with security issues after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, no conflicts in U.S.-China relations presented during these games.

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2008

2008 29th Summer Olympics

The 29th Summer Olympics was an Olympic of firsts. Hosted in Beijing, the 2008 Olympics were the first Olympics to be held in China and only the second Olympics held in a Communist country. Furthermore, these games saw China at the top of the podium rankings for the first time with a total of 100 medals. The U.S. came in second and Chinese Taipei competed as well with no medals won.

2022

2022 24th Winter Olympics

Making Beijing the only city to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, the 24th Winter Olympic Games returns the international event to China. Similar to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily disrupted the usual festivities of the Olympics including having no spectators at any of the Olympic events. Additional controversy comes from a slew of issues such as monetary cost, environmental impact, the Chinese government censoring the athletes, espionage, and sportswashing or using the Games to boost reputation. However, by far the most cited source of controversy is human rights, or more specifically the Uighur genocide. Although still sending athletes to compete in the Beijing Winter Olympics, the United States is holding a diplomatic boycott of the Games in which no U.S. officials or dignitaries will attend the Games. Chinese Taipei agreed to participate in these Winter Olympics and is sending four athletes to compete.

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Interactive Timeline of Events:

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1932

1932 10th Summer Olympics

Marking the second Olympic Games held in the U.S. in a singular year, the host city for the 10th Summer Olympics was Los Angeles, California. Because these Olympic Games occurred in the midst of the Great Depression, a number of countries including Romania, South Africa, and Turkey were unable to afford the cost of sending a team all the way to the United States. Yet, China was able to debut at their first Olympic Games in history competing under the name of the Republic of China. While China’s borders included all these areas at the time, in terms of modern day borders there were athletes from Mainland China, Outer Mongolia, Taiwan, and Tuva. 

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1989

Concerned over economic issues and corruption, Chinese students in Beijing orchestrated a series of protests calling for governmental accountability, constitutional due process, democracy, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech. After a month of protests, the People’s Liberation Army was sent to squash the dissent accompanied by tanks. Protestors were fired upon with rifles as well as tear gas. An estimated hundreds to thousands of protestors were killed resulting in international outcry over human rights violations. 

1989 Tiananmen Square

Until the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, conflicts and tensions in U.S.-China relations have not been the direct cause of Olympic boycotts. However, both countries have proven that they are not afraid of refusing to send athletes to the competition if the political situation is hostile enough. With the United States already conducting a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games and China certainly not pleased with this decision, the lead up to the 2024 Summer Olympics will be something to keep your eye on when the Games return to the U.S.

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Although held in Helsinki, Finland, the 15th Summer Olympic Games is particularly relevant to Chinese development regarding the Olympics. After the Chinese Civil War, the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over the mainland. The Republic of China did continue to compete in the Olympics, but only sent Taiwanese athletes. However, at the Helsinki Olympic Games, not only did the Republic of China send a team but the new People’s Republic of China also competed. The United States participated as usual without any controversy.

July 19-Aug 3: 15th Summer Olympics

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