In October, after decades of dismissal, and amid crescendoing opposition to the “Genocide Games,” the International Olympic Committee finally sat down and listened. Sixteen months before Beijing 2022, officials opened their ears. And they heard voices that represented the oppressed. Voices that spoke for millions unheard. Voices of Uyghurs; Hong Kongers; Tibetans; democratically-inclined Chinese. Victims of Beijing’s authoritarianism.
Activists had long sought the meeting. Five of them huddled on that October day to tell the IOC why the 2022 Winter Olympics could be so damaging. They shared first-hand testimony and widely reported facts: That the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained millions of Xinjiang Muslims, and cracked down on freedoms throughout the region. Years earlier, Olympic officials had promised that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would enhance human rights. Instead, “the Chinese government has gotten exponentially more repressive,” says Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch. “The kinds of abuses that we are writing about now – even we would have found them unthinkable back then.”
The IOC heard evidence of all of this in October. “Unfortunately, that dialogue didn't lead to anything,” says Zumretay Arkin of the World Uyghur Congress. “They were quite dismissive,” she says of IOC officials. They’ve done nothing to assuage concerns of activists and politicians alike that the Games will legitimize and fortify a government which the U.S. and Canada have since accused of genocide.
“We left the meeting,” Arkin says, “with an impression that the IOC just didn't really care.”
So with 12 months to go, opposition to the Beijing Olympics is beginning to take other forms. A variety of politicians and leaders have called on the IOC to relocate the Games, but relocation, at this point, is near-impossible. Those calls, experts say, have become futile and even counterproductive. Which is why activists and politicians and even some Olympic stakeholders are devising alternative plans. The most explosive ones invoke a word that represents the IOC’s biggest fears: Boycott.
Varying degrees of boycotts
It’s been four decades since the last Olympic boycott. Ahead of 2022, some organizations, politicians and opinionists have been calling for another. “To attend a Beijing Olympics can be seen as an endorsement of genocide and crimes against humanity,” says Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer and activist. A refusal to attend, experts say, would send a strong message to the Chinese government that abuses must cease.
Most activists, however, are not advocating for a 1980-style boycott, “because often boycotts can harm innocent bystanders,” Richardson says. “And in this case, that would be athletes.” Athletes who’ve toiled for years with a singular goal in mind. A government-enforced boycott, says Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, “puts athletes as pawns.” Most activists understand that and respect it. They say ripping the Games away would be cruel.
But there is nuance within the term “boycott.” Advocates and allies are on board with the strategy if individuals and governments are making decisions for themselves, rather than imposing boycotts on athletes. A coalition of 180 human rights groups has called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games, “to ensure they are not used to embolden the Chinese government’s appalling rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.” And experts believe a diplomatic boycott of some scale seems likely to materialize.
“I have trouble imagining various governments sending high level people at the moment,” says Richardson, the Human Rights Watch director. “The key here is to not give the Chinese government any particular legitimacy around this event.”
There is the separate possibility that individual athletes or groups of athletes could independently threaten to boycott, if they see competing in Beijing as complicity in genocide. Any boycott, Biao says, “would be welcome” and impactful – and the more far-reaching, the more impactful.
Biao accepts, though, that most athletes will choose to compete. He and others would rather discuss more realistic options.
“If they want to come and attend the Games, and publicly boycott the opening ceremony and closing ceremony, that would be good,” Biao says of athletes. “Simply a Tweet would be helpful. That's the way. That's an easy way to not be the accomplice.”
Will protesting at the Games be allowed?
Except it’s not easy. That’s the problem for athletes wishing to take a human rights stand in Beijing. The IOC has strict rules governing demonstrations and advocacy during the Games. According to its latest Rule 50 guidelines, “athletes have the opportunity to express their opinions, including during press conferences and interviews” or on social media. But if an athlete did criticize China’s many abuses, would experts fear reprisal from Chinese authorities?
“Yes,” Richardson says matter-of-factly.
“Absolutely I'd be concerned,” Koehler says.
Multiple European athletes who have spoken out against China’s treatment of Uyghurs, such as soccer star Mesut Ozil, have received intense backlash. NBA GM Daryl Morey’s 2019 tweet in support of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong incited a multi-hundred-million-dollar firestorm. Chinese authorities have a long history of retribution against those who dissent domestically. And at the moment, Richardson says, “the Chinese government is arbitrarily detaining a number of foreign citizens.”
Koehler says he’s spoken to athletes who have “been encouraged not to publicly talk about the human rights abuse happening in China.” And he suspects athletes “will be appropriately warned before going” to Beijing for the Olympics. The IOC could support athletes’ freedom of expression by offering protection to any attending the Games. But when asked on Wednesday whether the IOC would offer that protection to an athlete who criticized China’s human rights record, IOC president Thomas Bach did not directly answer the question. In response to follow-ups via email – “if that athlete faced consequences from Chinese authorities, would the IOC protect the athlete?” – an IOC spokesperson again did not directly answer the question.
“We have received from the organizing committee and the Chinese partner all the assurances contained in the host city contract,” Bach said.
The 2015 contract signed by Olympic organizers guarantees “the freedom of the media to provide independent news coverage of the Games,” and “the editorial independence of the material broadcasted or published.” But it does not include a single mention of human rights. Advocacy groups have described that as an “astonishing" omission. In 2017, the IOC added a human rights clause to its “host city contracts,” but it has not said that Beijing must comply with the new standards.
Public statements or demonstrations would indeed aid the activists’ causes, and allow athletes to fulfill both sporting and moral duties. But without guarantees from Olympic organizers, Richardson believes, national governments might have to step up and negotiate protections.
“It's both that governments are going to have to do a lot more work in a consular sense before people go to these Games,” she says. “But also to be on deck to help people if they do run into trouble.”
Athletes put in a tough situation
The IOC has not publicly addressed the accusations of genocide, nor has it addressed any of China’s abuses with any specificity. And no activist expects that the IOC will. “The IOC just seems to have closed its eyes and wished this had gone away,” Richardson says.
In doing so, it’s forced athletes to consider whether their pursuit of Olympic dreams is implicitly harmful. The IOC, Koehler says, is “first and foremost to blame for putting athletes in this position.”
Everybody interviewed for this story, activists included, clarified that athletes aren’t obliged to speak up. Many will go to the Games and enjoy them without a single thought of genocide. Doing so is their choice, and their right.
Activists do, however, want to make sure athletes are informed. Arkin, the World Uyghur Congress leader, says they’ve asked for dialogue with national Olympic committees, and spoke with Germany’s last month. “They also have to know what is happening on the ground, and they have this responsibility to give that information to athletes,” she says – in case the athletes do want to send a message.
A government’s role, then, is twofold: Secure protections for its athletes who do speak up, and geopolitic without weaponizing unwilling athletes, in conjunction with the rest of the free world.
And Koehler believes the focus should stretch beyond Beijing 2022. Governments, he explains, could push Olympic organizations to codify human rights in everything they do, to ensure that a Beijing-like dilemma never arises again.
“And maybe that's a condition for engagement” in 2022, he says. “Instead of just saying, 'We're gonna boycott,' say, 'We'll go, but here's the conditions of engagement.’ ” He mentions rescinding the IOC’s Rule 50, which constrains protest; and introducing human rights score thresholds as prerequisites for hosting the Olympics.
“ ‘These things must be done, and we will go to the Games,’” Koehler continues, paraphrasing the message governments could send. “ ‘But we're doing this because we want to see it improved. We want to see our athletes' rights respected.’ ”
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