Once again, the Olympics are being used to obscure human rights violations. Will the IOC finally take a stand?

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·4 min read

Here, now, comes another chance for the International Olympic Committee to do the right thing.

No, not canceling that 2020(ish) Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Although it should probably think very hard about that too.

The 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are even more concerning, given China’s appalling human rights record against dissenters and religious minorities. Last week, yet another well-sourced article was published about the abuses against the Muslim Uighurs in a complex of prisons and re-education camps that have, by some estimates, swallowed up a million people. This time, the accusation is of systemic rape and forced sterilization.

New U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang province genocide, echoing his predecessor Mike Pompeo. 

Early this month, 180 human rights groups called for a boycott of the 2022 Olympics in response to IOC’s inaction. 

Because, as ever, the IOC has looked away. Even though China gave it assurances that it would improve its human rights record when it was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, also in Beijing. Instead, China cracked down harder than ever.

The IOC could take a stand. The IOC must take a stand.

The IOC has been here before. Most notably in 1936. Far from implying that the Chinese regime is akin to the Nazi one that staged the Berlin Games, there was a similar swelling of resistance to the host nation. By 1936, it was evident that Adolf Hitler’s government was rapidly rearming and violating the Versailles Treaty that had ended World War I by reoccupying demilitarized zones. Concentration camps were established as early as 1933 and Nazi Germany’s ideological anti-Semitism was already nakedly on display.

The IOC has yet another chance to not let a host country get away with using the Olympics to obscure human rights violations. (Photo by WANG Zhao / AFP) (Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)
The IOC has yet another chance to not let a host country get away with using the Olympics to obscure human rights violations. (Photo by WANG Zhao / AFP) (Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

But the IOC turned a blind eye to all of that. The IOC president wrote to the U.S. Olympic Committee, led by future IOC president Avery Brundage, to declare that he, too, was “not personally fond of Jews” but that he had assurances that the Games would be open to all. Brundage – who would later kick John Carlos and Tommie Smith out of the Mexico City Olympics for their Black power salute on the medal stand – took a trip to Germany and came away admiring Hitler and then gave his blessing for the American delegation to go. That snuffed out any hope of an American boycott, which even Jesse Owens, who would become a star with his four gold medals, had initially supported.

The Nazis, allowed to keep their Olympics, subsequently leveraged it into a powerful propaganda tool, as nobody had before, further powering their ascent. There’s no telling how stripping Berlin of the 1936 Games might have altered the course of the next decade, but it’s likely that those Games helped to normalize and validate a fascist and obviously dangerous regime. Just as the 2008 Olympics allowed China to burnish its credentials as a modern nation. Just as Russian strongman Vladimir Putin used the 2014 Olympics in Sochi to flex his muscles.

But in this and all adjacent matters, the IOC hides behind its purported non-political nature. Never mind that when Pierre de Coubertin rejuvenated the games in 1896, he organized the athletes by country, which they hadn’t been in the Ancient Games. Because de Coubertin believed that if nations were allowed to display their pride and compete in a friendly setting, with young men well prepared for battle through physical exercise, they were less likely to fight actual wars. And never mind that when the IOC considered ending the practice of playing anthems and waving flags on the medal stand in 1968, the motion was defeated, thus opting to keep nationalism – and, by extension, politics – around thereafter. The Games were always political.

The 21st century has further proved the notion that sports and politics are separate things is a lie, that sport is escapism insulated from the rest of life. If anything, sports are one of the clearest mirrors of society and, consequently, politics. The stated aim of apolitical Olympics has rung hollow for decades, perhaps ever since the U.S. and the Soviet Union boycotted and counter-boycotted one another in 1980 and 1984 over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

But for as long as the IOC is willing to keep up this pretense, the Olympics will also continue to be used as an expensive veneer to obscure any ugliness hiding beneath.

China doesn’t deserve to host another Olympics. There is plenty of evidence that it hasn’t made the promised progress on human rights – that it has regressed if anything. If the IOC wants its signature event to remain the celebration of humanity that it purports it to be, it has to also make the effort to serve and protect that humanity by drawing a line at last.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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