When the International Olympic Committee formed a human rights advisory committee in December 2018, IOC president Thomas Bach stated that promoting human rights had been a “core feature” of the IOC since its creation.
“Our mission, to put sport at the service of humanity, goes hand-in-hand with human rights, which is part of our DNA,” Bach said.
Yet as the Olympic Games formally open today Friday in Beijing, Bach and the IOC have been conspicuously silent amid threats by Chinese government and Beijing organizing committee authorities on athletes speaking out against China’s human rights record during the Games will be subject to punishment.
Yang Shu’an, the Beijing 2022 vice president who signed the Olympic Truce Mural with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach Tuesday, recently said Olympic athletes’ statements and behavior would only “be protected” if they were “in line with the Olympic spirit.” Athletes doing anything “against Chinese laws and regulations” would be held “accountable,” Yang said.
“Any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected,” Yang said. “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
Yang did not define what constituted the “Olympic spirit” or elaborate on potential punishment.
Rule 50 of the IOC Charter prohibits “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic venues.
Chinese authorities have “dedicated departments” that will determine punishment for athletes who violate the IOC’s Rule 50 and Chinese law, Yang said.
“I think for the athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, they should follow the spirit and requirements provided by the Olympic Charter,” Yang said. “The politicization of sports is one of the things opposed by the Olympic Charter.”
Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, warned in December that there would be “resolute countermeasures” in response to the U.S. led diplomatic boycott.
“We’re very concerned for the simple reason that the two entities that are there to protect athletes are threatening to punish them and that’s been proven by the foreign minister of China indicating that any country that boycotts will be punished and then shortly or earlier one of the heads of Beijing 2022 organizing committee came out and said that any athlete that speaks out against or speaks out … be subject to punishment,” said Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete, a Montreal-based international athlete rights advocacy group funded by Fair Sport, a non-profit founded to encourage and support whistleblowers in sports. “And then on top of that, you have the IOC Rule 50. So here we are putting athletes in a position where no organization is willing to protect their rights. So we’re very concerned.”
As it has in the face of global criticism of Chinese atrocities against the Uyghurs, a largely Muslim ethnic minority, group, and on human rights abuses in its crackdown of protests in Hong Kong and domestic dissidents, the IOC has remained silent in regard to protecting athletes speaking out during the Games.
“We haven’t heard from the IOC,” Koehler said. “The IOC has pretty much put its head in the sand through this whole thing and hasn’t come out to alleviate any concerns for athletes. The athletes are having a discussion right now about COVID-19 safety and cybersecurity and they aren’t talking about competition. That’s wrong in general. The IOC has basically put their head in the sand because they could make it very easy to say any athlete that decides to peacefully protest, we will protect you.”
Global Athlete, Koehler said, is putting together a network of attorneys and human rights experts “who will be on standby to help and assist any athlete should they choose to use their rights to freedom of expression, but we advise against it unfortunately. It’s ridiculous we’re saying that.”
Koehler’s concern is shared by Congress.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) criticized the IOC for ignoring China’s human rights abuses.
“Now the IOC, aided by corporate sponsors, once again turns a blind eye with the 2022 Winter Olympics just to bolster their bottom line,” Pelosi said.
But the Speaker also discouraged athletes from criticizing China during the Games.
“Do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government because they are ruthless,” Pelosi said.
Where is Peng Shuai?
Concerns about who the IOC would side with in potential free speech disputes — the Chinese government or athletes — were heightened by Bach and the IOC’s role in the recent controversy surrounding tennis player Peng Shuai.
Peng, 35, who is a Wimbledon and French Open champion, on Nov. 2 accused Zhang Gaoli, the former vice premier of the Chinese Communist Party, of sexually assaulting her. She also said she had a years long affair with Zhang.
She then seemed to disappear, raising concerns about her safety and whereabouts. The case gained international attention when tennis superstars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka took to social media asking #WhereIsPengShuai. Chinese state media released an email attributed to Peng on Nov. 17 saying she was not “missing” or “unsafe.”
It did not ease concerns. Two days later the United Nations pushed for an investigation into the matter and the White House demanded “verifiable proof” that Peng was safe.
Bach held a much criticized video call with Peng on Nov. 21. The IOC did not release a video or transcript of the call that officials said lasted 30 minutes. Peng thanked Bach and the IOC for their concern, the IOC said in a statement.
Video of the call was not released, but a still image was. Bach invited Peng to dinner after his arrival in Beijing. She accepted, the IOC said.
“She explained that she is safe and well, living at her home in Beijing, but would like to have her privacy respected at this time,” the IOC said in a statement. “That is why she prefers to spend her time with friends and family right now. Nevertheless, she will continue to be involved in tennis, the sport she loves so much.”
The interview was widely derided as a misguided IOC publicity stunt at best — and at worst — an act of collaboration with Chinese officials in suppressing allegations of sexual abuse.
With the interview, the IOC demonstrated “an abhorrent indifference to sexual violence and the well-being of female athletes,” Global Athlete said in a statement that echoed international criticism.
“In light of the assistance the IOC lent Chinese authorities in silencing tennis star Peng Shuai, its commitments regarding human rights are now worthless,” said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director. “In the case of the tennis player and its lack of pushback to the Chinese threat to punish athletes or officials making critical statements during the Games, has the IOC become even more collaborative with the Chinese government?”
The IOC had a second video call with Peng on Dec. 1 after which the organization defended what it described as “quiet diplomacy” in the matter.
“There are different ways to achieve her well-being and safety. We have taken a very human and person-centered approach to her situation,” the IOC said in a statement. “Since she is a three-time Olympian, the IOC is addressing these concerns directly with Chinese sports organizations. We are using ‘quiet diplomacy’ which, given the circumstances and based on the experience of governments and other organizations, is indicated to be the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
Peng denied the sexual abuse allegations in an interview with a Singapore Chinese-language media outlet released Dec. 19.
“The entire show, the fact that the IOC played into China’s hands by having a call with her and indicating that she was safe when they had no clue if she was safe or not and they made no mention of the sexual assault allegations that she’s had and basically said there’s nothing to see here, then they doubled down with a second call and did the same thing,” Koehler said. “And what’s happened since that time? One, Peng Shuai has withdrawn her allegations and no one knows where she is.”
“Quiet diplomacy” has been a recurring theme with the IOC for decades. It was one of the justifications the IOC used in awarding the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing. The IOC would be able to leverage the Games to push China behind the scenes toward a more open society and guaranteeing basic human rights for all its citizens, IOC officials said.
“The IOC cites ‘quiet diplomacy’ working behind the scenes in its dealing with the Chinese or the (Russian President Vladimir) Putin government in 2014,” Richardson said. “Do you see any indication that this approach has led to any significant movement by the Chinese government in terms of human rights?
“The Chinese government loves ‘quiet diplomacy,’ because it means no one can hold anyone accountable, and no one across China can know that interventions have been made. Two decades of ‘quiet diplomacy’ by governments and other powerful actors helped pave the way for Beijing to achieve its current reality, in which it will continue to commit crimes against humanity while these Games go on.”
The IOC has been forced to deploy more “quiet diplomacy” in recent years with its increased reliance on authoritarian regimes like China or Russia as the cost of hosting the Olympics and public opposition has driven fewer and fewer countries from bidding for the Games.
Beijing was selected over Almaty, Kazakhstan, as the 2022 host city after four other candidates, including Oslo and Stockholm, withdrew citing costs, high public opposition and IOC heavy handedness.
“The IOC doesn’t want giant crowds chanting about misplaced priorities and how it is that the country has been fleeced by the IOC,” said Robert A. Baade, a Lake Forest College economics professor and co-author of “Going for the Gold: The Economics of the Olympics.” “Growing recognition that it’s likely to be an economically catastrophic event in some cases has led to more and more to autocracies or less than democratic nations hosting. So there’s been that kind of evolution that can’t be ignored.”
The IOC’s relationship with China has caught the attention of Capitol Hill.
Last month, members of Congress proposed legislation that would strip the IOC of its nonprofit, tax-exempt status in the U.S., demanded assurances from Bach that official Beijing uniforms and gear were not made by forced labor and told NBC executives that they expected “full and transparent” coverage of China’s human rights abuses during the network’s coverage of the Games.
The IOC reported $7.45 billion in revenues for the fiscal years 2015 through 2018 with assets of $4.56 billion, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service. Much of those revenues come from U.S.-based corporate sponsors. NBC is paying the IOC $7.75 billion for broadcasting rights through the 2032 Olympics.
Executives from top Olympic sponsors — Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb, Intel, Procter & Gamble — appeared at an often contentious Congressional Executive Commission on China in July in which Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., accused the companies of “cold indifference to genocide.”
“The IOC is a convenient and easy target right now,” said Derick Hulme, a political science professor at Alma College. “And it’s a place where the Republicans and the Democrats can actually agree on and so it’s easy for the politicians right now to make statements that they don’t really have to do anything about.
“Everybody can criticize the IOC and everybody agrees China behaves terribly and you make some hay on that, but you don’t actually have to do anything. So it’s rhetorically easy, it’s substantive effectively meaningless.”
The IOC in the past has withstood international criticism stemming from the Salt Lake City bribery scandal to financial debacles on four continents before ultimately finding refuge in the actual Games.
“I think the IOC, when it comes to China, they’re playing the long game and the long game is they want to get out of this as quick as possible but they also understand the value of those two and a half weeks when all of the build up and debate and discussion and raising awareness of issues seems to die down when we see the competition start and people just start focusing on that and they know that’s to their benefit,” Koehler said. “And normally they get through that and they just start focusing on the next Games and everything goes away, but that hasn’t happened.
“You look at the pandemic. Something good always comes from something bad and I think the pandemic, the pause in sport, has given athletes time to reflect because they’re normally very focused on one thing, and reflect in a way to say you know what we need to leave sport in a better place than we found it. And that’s why we’re seeing so much athlete advocacy and standing up for rights and wanting to change the system and I don’t think it’s going to go away, and just because you have a quote-unquote ‘safe’ next Olympics in Paris, the same issues still stand.”
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