The “guilt games”? China’s human rights issues forever scarred the Beijing Olympics

The rules of the Olympics – called the Olympic Charter – contain many regulations intended to promote “political neutrality”. No demonstrations on the playing field, no wearing of flashing symbols or hand gestures. That sort of thing.

Yet politics and the Games have a long and difficult history.

Think of Nazi Germany using the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda tool or the Palestinian terrorists kidnapping and murdering Israeli team members in 1972 Munich. The United States and the Soviet Union traded boycotts in the 1980s, and Chechen rebels threatened to attack the 2014 Sochi Games.

In each of these cases, the competition continued. This time it’s different.

The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing have been criticized by human rights groups who oppose holding them in a country accused of persecuting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. The United States and its closest allies will protest by refusing to send a usual delegation to the February 4 opening ceremony.

The leaders of the International Olympic Committee, who chose China for financial reasons, pushed back insisting that their quadrennial event is “beyond all political disputes”. At a time of unprecedented social activism in sport, this ethical debate has caught athletes in the crossfire.

“I know it’s something a lot of people think about,” said American ice dancer Evan Bates. “We are human beings too and when we read and hear about what is happening [in China] …we hate it.

Broadcasters and corporate sponsors will walk the same tightrope. They’ve paid big bucks to strap themselves to the Olympic rings and now have to balance the celebration of graceful triple axes and searing descents with a harsher reality.

Could politics turn Beijing into a “guilt game?” The answer is complicated.


A Students for a Free Tibet activist demonstrates outside the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, in December.

(Valentin Flauraud/AFP via Getty Images)

At a time when it costs billions of dollars to host the Olympics — and authoritarian countries can sign the check without the threat of a referendum or public backlash — there weren’t many options for selecting a 2022 host. .

The auctions were held in Beijing and the untested city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, after several European bidders withdrew. China won in a close vote and recent events suggest that had the IOC chosen Almaty there might not have been a Winter Games this year.

Yet Beijing’s choice drew immediate criticism because of China’s human rights record, its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and its aggressive foreign policy toward Mongolia and other neighbors. Tibetan students protested by chaining themselves to rings outside the IOC headquarters in Switzerland. It didn’t help, image-wise, when one of the Chinese athletes, tennis player Peng Shuai, disappeared for several weeks in November after publicly accusing a former Communist Party official of sexual assault. She later said she was misunderstood.

“The Olympics are inevitably a time of passion and drama. This should be celebrated,” wrote Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “But Beijing’s goal is to use them as propaganda cover for the crackdown.”

A recent trend has made it difficult for athletes to ignore tone and shouting.

The May 2020 murder of George Floyd by convicted officer Derek Chauvin and the police shooting of Jacob Blake sparked a new level of social consciousness in the sports world, something more than draft-resistant Muhammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the podium at the Mexico City Games in 1968. Athletes began to protest in greater numbers as walkouts forced postponements in professional basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer and tennis. At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, the United States women’s soccer team knelt before games and shot putter Raven Saunders crossed her arms above her head on the medal podium to show support for “oppressed people”.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that an athlete can take a stand,” said Tucker West, an American luge player. “Athletes have a voice and why not use [it]?”

A man takes a photo of a head bust of Thomas Bach.

A man takes a photo of a head bust of Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, at the Museum of the Olympic Community in Beijing on Friday.

(Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

But the desire to be socially responsible became more delicate when, with the approach of the Beijing Games, some called on the Olympians to organize a boycott.

The Winter Games only take place every four years, providing rare television exposure to niche sports such as biathlon and ski jumping. The Biden administration acknowledged this when announcing its diplomatic boycott, choosing not to penalize athletes who have spent a lifetime preparing for their moment in the spotlight. As figure skater Vincent Zhou said, “Having worries about things happening in the political climate or elsewhere is important, but not productive for our main purpose.

Ice dancing duo Bates and Madison Chock, also an off-ice couple, exemplify the mixed emotions many Olympic hopefuls have felt in recent months. While Bates describes human rights abuses as “terrible…awful,” Chock has fond memories of competing in China.

“The people we’ve met…have been great,” she said. “I know these issues don’t represent the whole country because there are so many good people.”

Chock had another reason to feel conflicted.

“I’m part Chinese and it instilled in me a love of country,” she said. “There’s just a lot of stuff and it’s not so black and white.”


Protester Lijian Jie screams as he joins demonstrators at a rally to protest the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

Protester Lijian Jie screams as he joins demonstrators at a rally to protest the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics outside the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood on December 10.

(Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

With LA hosting the 2028 Summer Games and Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2030 Winter Games, it’s no surprise that US Olympic leaders have embraced the IOC’s stance on China.

“We strongly believe that governments around the world, including our own, along with diplomatic teams and respective experts, should lead the conversation on international relations,” said Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “We always try to stay in our own lane.”

The question is: what happens next, if anything?

The IOC has a human rights policy in place for host cities, but this will only come into effect at the 2024 Paris Games. Although campaigners have called for a TV blackout, NBC has paid $7.75 billion for Olympic broadcast rights through 2032 and will proceed as planned. It remains to be seen how primetime host Mike Tirico and his colleagues will approach the subject on the air.

Major sponsors – including Visa, Toyota and Coca-Cola – have been equally silent. Omega told Bloomberg News it was monitoring the situation, and Allianz issued a statement saying, “We stand behind the Olympic movement and our longstanding support for its ideals will not wane.”

As for the diplomatic gesture from the United States, as well as allies such as Canada and the United Kingdom, will fans really miss First Lady Jill Biden or Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff seated in the dignitaries’ box next month? ?

All of this puts the responsibility on the athletes. They clearly want to compete in Beijing, but could also use the opportunity to speak out. The USOPC is preparing for demonstrations on the playing field, with President Susanne Lyons saying: “Certainly our athletes will have points of view.”

China has not responded sympathetically to public criticism in the past. Public television canceled NBA games after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong protesters and actor John Cena felt the need to apologize – in Mandarin, nothing less – after calling Taiwan a “country” in an interview. China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty. Tennis player Peng is just the latest Chinese celebrity, businessman or activist to disappear after condemning the government.

A protester holds a flag during a protest against the Beijing Olympics in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday.

A protester holds a flag during a protest against the Beijing Olympics in Taipei, Taiwan, on Wednesday.

(Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images)

“In the absence of guaranteed protection from the IOC or the Chinese authorities, we strongly advise athletes not to speak about human rights issues while in China,” said Global Athlete, an international grassroots group. , in a statement earlier this month. “Peng Shuai’s disappearance is a stark example of the kind of risk athletes face when speaking out. “

USOPC officials recognize the potential for unrest in Beijing.

“We absolutely make sure the athletes understand the rules and laws of the country we’re going to and where those risks might be because those laws and rules are different than they are in our country,” Hirshland said.

Although the “continuing political tension”, as Lyons calls it, may become a distraction, freestyle skier David Wise believes he and his teammates will remain vigilant.

There won’t be much time to think about geopolitics once the competition begins, certainly not when Wise drops into the halfpipe and picks up speed to lip launch, spinning, twisting, cartwheeling in the airs.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist reckons all his attention will be on landing safely, with all those ethical debates fading away.

“Personally, I don’t have enough bandwidth.”

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