World Athletics president Seb Coe has criticised the United Kingdom's plans to politically boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics, calling such acts "frankly meaningless" and "intellectually dishonest."
Prime Minister Boris Johnsonconfirmed in early December that the UK will join other western powers the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada in refusing to send officials to Beijing in February.
The decision was made as uncertainty still reigns in regards to the freedom and autonomy of tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused former Chinese vice premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault in early November.
Governing bodies both in and outside tennis have not been fully satisfied of the 35-year-old's safety despite making contact via video link in recent weeks, raising concerns over China's human rights record.
But in his most direct address of the matter to date, senior International Olympic Committee member Coe spoke out against boycotts as a means of effecting change.
“I’m not insouciant or cavalier about human rights, I take them very seriously,” he said. “But we have to be realistic, when we take our events around the world there are going to be challenges: culturally, politically, socially.
"I guess my fallacy position on this is always, in an imperfect world, sport is the one continuum that can actually create some stability. I’ve witnessed time after time the impact that sport has had in flicking that dial, socially, politically, economically.”
China has been accused of forcibly detaining more than one million Uyghurs in re-education camps based in Xinjiang, many of whom are believed to have been subject to sterilisation.
U.S. President Joe Biden last week signed a bill into law banning imports of all goods produced by ethnic Uyghurs living in internment camps in China.
Of those major western countries set to abstain from the upcoming Winter Games, only the United States (1932) and Canada (2010) have ever emerged atop the medal table.
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The aim is that the absence of certain countries will help raise awareness of Peng's situation and China's questionable human rights record, though Coe disagrees that will be the end result.
In regards to the prospect of a boycott, he decried: “Boycotts on balance are historically illiterate and intellectually dishonest.
“A political boycott is, frankly, meaningless. And in a world where I actually think discussion and relationships are important, rarely do I see isolation bearing fruit.
“But that’s not to be an apologist for countries that do not conform to the basic standards around human rights. I’ve never witnessed sport leaving any country in worse shape than when it’s been there. The impact across the board can be, on many occasions, quite profound.”
The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced plans in December to suspend all competitions in China for the foreseeable future, but the International Tennis Federation (ITF) refused to follow suit.
David Haggerty, president of the ITF, insisted the sport's governing body is "in support of women's rights" but defended that stance, saying it didn't "want to punish a billion people" because of the Peng situation.
The 2022 Winter Olympics are scheduled to begin in Beijing on February 4.
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