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U.N., IOC and sponsors under fire as Beijing Games begin



A security guard stands behind a barricade in an area not accessible to the general public, that will host the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics on January 23, 2022 in Beijing, China. | Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

China Watcher convened an expert panel Wednesday to discuss the most pressing issues affecting the 2022 Beijing Olympics, which open Friday. The experts — Sen. JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.), co-chair of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China; SOPHIE RICHARDSON, China director at Human Rights Watch; NOAH HOFFMAN, two-time U.S. Olympian and board member of Global Athlete; and MELISSA CHAN, a journalist who covered the 2008 Beijing Summer Games — unpacked why this month’s Beijing Games are such a hot-button issue of international concern. We’ve distilled highlights of the exchange below, edited for length and clarity.

What are your key concerns about the Beijing Games?

Merkley: I'm very worried about the Olympic spirit being perverted by China hosting these Games and the international community allowing the glitz and glamour of Olympic gold to distract the world from the horrific acts of genocide against the Uyghur people and the desecration of democracy in Hong Kong. I'm really struck by the comparison to the 1936 Olympics, when you had Hitler proudly flying the Nazi flag next to the Olympic flag. And when the world didn't really respond to the [Nazi] abuses that were already underway, he took it as a full kind of authorization that he could get away with much more egregious conduct, leading to war and the Holocaust.

Hoffman: How do we stop athletes from being forced into this position where their skill set, their expertise and their performances are used to overshadow atrocious crimes and human rights violations? How do we stop the Games from being politicized in a way that enhances the power of authoritarian governments? The answer is that the organization responsible for the Olympics and for where the Olympics are held — the International Olympic Committee — must be made responsible and accountable to athletes. This is an opportunity to say, “This cannot continue to be the path of the Olympic movement.”

Chan: Why did the IOC put athletes in this position where they picked a host city where people going there have to bring burner phones? Like gee, maybe you picked the wrong host city if you have to do that. The IOC and [Games broadcaster] NBC have to start rethinking host countries. It's just getting really hard and also getting more expensive to host the Olympics, to the point that a lot of democratic states that are answerable to their taxpayer base are less and less likely to want to host. Whereas all the incentives are there for authoritarian states to want to host the Olympics because it confers legitimacy and also supports and buttresses nationalism.

What’s up with U.N. Secretary-General ANTÓNIO GUTERRES attending the Games?

Merkley: The U.N. has basically failed in its human rights role here and it's shameful for Guterres to appear at the Games. If he were to stand up at the games and draw attention to the human rights issues in China, that would be an appropriate moment of courage. If he were to say that the International Olympic Committee has turned athletes into pawns in China's propaganda machine, insist that they have their full freedom of speech, criticize the surveillance state and what it has meant for crushing the prospect of freedom in the world, and the importance of the world not following that, that path would be brave. I expect none of the above. So, the U.N. is really failing on this, and his leadership is failing.

Richardson: My real concern is that Xi Jinping and other senior government officials who we know are culpable for crimes against humanity get a free pass. And I think that is enabled in part by the presence right now in Beijing of Guterres, who has not vocally condemned these abuses, and has not pushed ahead for the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights to release a long-promised report on atrocity crimes targeting Uyghurs and others across the Xinjiang region. The bottom line is time's up. It is time to publish that report. And it is time to push ahead with a difficult but essential project of holding Chinese government officials accountable for atrocity crimes. The U.N.'s credibility, the Secretary-General's credibility and the High Commissioner’s credibility are on the line if they choose not to use all of the tools at their disposal to hold the second-most powerful government in the world accountable for some of the most serious abuses under international human rights law.

How are U.S. athletes feeling about the Beijing Games?

Hoffman: The most striking thing in talking to some of my former teammates and athletes that are heading over to these Games was that in the lead-up to these Olympics they did not have a single team meeting focused on sport, performance and their athletics. Instead, every single meeting was focused on either Covid protocols or personal safety, digital privacy and free speech issues. It’s distracting athletes from their performance. They feel like they're just being victimized in this system that is using them to these political ends that are completely contrary to their values. It's over their head and out of their control.

What are the media constraints to reporting the Beijing Games?

Chan: Foreign journalists inside this [“closed-loop system”] bubble can't cover China well, because they're so limited. I was just looking at a picture online of the Beijing Games’ press room that opened the other day. Apparently there are stacks of “Xi Jinping Thought “ books, so I hope reporters keep an eye out for those details, because it says something about the [Chinese] state and what they're trying to promote. As a journalist, I would say I feel like the story of China is perpetually of journalists reporting it like it is, and people around the world not willing to see China for what it is, but rather for what they want it to be.

What role do corporate sponsors play in the Beijing Games controversy?

Hoffman: Sponsors can no longer stand by and pretend that this investment in the Olympic movement is going to support the Olympic values of friendship and cooperation. We see over and over again how the athletes are just being used in this system without any power at all to shape the movement and continually are harmed by decisions made by the IOC. Not only do sponsors and broadcasters like NBC have a responsibility to call out human rights abuses when the games go to China, they also have a responsibility to force change in the structure of the Olympic movement so that it doesn't happen again.


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