Like many sports fans around the world, I love the Olympics for what they represent: an opportunity for incredible athletes from 200-plus countries and territories to come together in a spirit of healthy competition.
But as the 2022 Winter Olympics are set to begin in Beijing, I can’t help but feel deeply troubled that the nations of the world in general, and the International Olympic Committee in particular, have allowed these games to become a mockery of the Olympic spirit.
Principle 2 of the Olympic Charter states: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Granting these games to China without condition — and then failing to even hold Beijing to the existing rules — does not live up to this standard.
As Beijing prepares for the spectacle of the opening ceremonies on February 4, it is doing everything possible to prevent the media, corporate sponsors, athletes, and most everyone else from actively discussing the many dark manifestations of Chinese government actions, including mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, the hollowing out of civil society and the destruction of democratic rights in Hong Kong, the illegal seizure of territory in the South China Sea, military aggression across the Taiwan Strait and on the Chinese border with India, and the prevention of any meaningful investigation into the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan.
By granting the Olympics to China without any significant conditions, the IOC has set the stage for an Olympics more reminiscent of the 1936 Berlin games than of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
I reference the 1988 Korean games because they exemplify the positive role granting the games to an authoritarian regime once played. The spotlight of those games emboldened Korean civil society and democracy activists and played a meaningful role catalyzing the transition to democracy that has proven so beneficial to Korea and the world.
The example of 1988 South Korea games gave hope to Chinese citizens that the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics could likewise spark reforms—particularly after the Chinese government committed itself to improving human rights and press freedom in its 2003 application to host the games.
But in spite of these hopes and its formal pledges, Beijing did not live up to its commitments for the 2008 games.
For this reason alone, it’s my view that either China should not have been granted the 2022 Olympics or the granting of the games to China should have been pre-conditioned on progress toward realizing a set of clearly delineated principles based on the ideals of the Olympic Charter.
That the Beijing Olympics are going forward regardless of very significant human rights and other concerns is now raising fundamental questions about the accountability of the Olympic movement. The IOC’s inaction also unfairly and inappropriately transfers all of the pressure of supporting the principles of the Olympic movement to athletes, sponsors, and others.
The incredible athletes are in Beijing because they have dedicated their lives to being the best that they, and we, can be. That’s why they deserve the opportunity to compete in an environment free of politics. Placing the games in Beijing has made that inherently impossible. It forces the athletes to choose between a painful silence implicitly condoning deeply concerning behaviors by the host government on the one hand and speaking up at great personal and professional risk on the other.
Ironically, the IOC recognized the need to create some space for Olympic athletes to express their views when, it determined prior to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics that athletes had more leeway to express themselves with the caveat that “When expressing their views, athletes are expected to respect the applicable laws.”
On January 18, 2022, Yang Shu, Deputy Director General of International Relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, threatened in a news conference that “Any behavior or speech that is… against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” Given that Chinese law does not afford free expression, this statement made clear that even the IOC’s minimal standards for expression by Olympic athletes would not be respected. The IOC did not respond to My. Yang’s statement.
Corporate and media sponsors are also in a very difficult position. US multinational corporate sponsors of the games, including Airbnb, Coke, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, Visa, and others, have signed very expensive multi-year contracts with the IOC, in most cases before the 2022 games were granted to China. They also all have strong economic interests in the Chinese market that would be put at risk by speaking up. But do these brands really want to be associated with games that condone by association a whole set of unacceptable behaviors by the host government? Based on their own publicly declared assertions of values and principles, can, and, perhaps more importantly, should, they really say nothing about mass human rights abuses?
NBC, the US media partner of the IOC, signed its mutli-year, $7.75 billion partnership with the IOC before the 2022 games were granted to Beijing. With so much on the line, NBC is right to fear that the Chinse authorities could simply pull the plug on their coverage if the network is too critical of Beijing. But the alternative – becoming an extension of Chinese Community Party propaganda – is also pretty awful. That’s why I’ve said repeatedly that NBC has a sacred responsibility to include a serious examination of human rights issues as part of its Beijing Olympics coverage.
The responsibility, however, goes beyond the IOC, the corporate sponsors, and the media partners – to all of us. As consumers of the Olympics, we all have a role to play.
Everyone who’ll be watching and enjoying the Beijing games has a responsibility to become educated about the bigger story of China, for better and for worse.
I say better because there is much that’s remarkable about the China story and especially the Chinese people. I’ve said for many years that any of us who believe in human rights should be jumping for joy that the Chinese government has helped bring an estimated 700 million people out of abject poverty. Incredible Chinese scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs are contributing meaningfully to our world of knowledge and helping make the world, in many ways, a better place. I am a critic of the Chinese government, but not of the Chinese people, who have brought the world phenomenal artistic, cultural, and scientific contributions over thousands of years.
That’s why I invite and encourage everyone to learn more about China in the run up to the games.
To facilitate that process, I am happy to share the following links:
- This excellent book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom by John Pomfret, describes the long history of relations between the United States and China and how our two societies have co-evolved in many mutually beneficial ways.
- This article describes the Chinese economic miracle, initially unleashed by the bold reforms of Deng Xiaoping (and here’s a BBC cheat sheet).
- This book describes 7,000 years of magnificent Chinese arts and culture.
- These three books by Frank Dikotter describe in great detail the incredible brutality of the Chinese revolution, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution, which, combined, resulted in the death of an estimated 47 million Chinese citizens. The fact that Mao, who was primarily responsible for these mass atrocities, is still the foundational figure of Chinese government legitimacy is highly indicative.
- This report describes ongoing mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang, which the United States government has labelled genocide.
- The book, Eat the Buddha by Barbara Demick, describes the brutal Chinese government attack on Tibetan people and culture through deeply personal stories.
- This website by me and this book by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley describe the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very real possibility it stems from an accidental lab incident followed by a criminal coverup, and how Beijing is blocking any meaningful investigation into pandemic origins.
- This article describes Beijing’s assault on democratic rights in Hong Kong.
- This report explores China’s illegal activity in the South China Sea.
Although I’m a profound critic of many actions being taken by the Chinese government, I also recognize that a positive relationship between China and the rest of the world is essential to ensuring a safe, peaceful, and secure 21st century for all. We all must work toward that end.
We cannot, however, purchase harmony by abandoning the very principles that must underpin the world we are hoping to build.