By Peter Irwin and Zumretay Arkin

The Olympics have always been replete with firsts. The first modern Games were held in Athens in 1896; the first women competed in Paris in 1900; the first Winter Games took place in Chamonix in 1924; and the first professional athletes joined amateurs in 1984 in Los Angeles.

The upcoming 2022 Winter Games could be another notable first — the first Olympics to be held in a country accused of committing genocide.

Photo: ricochet64, via Shutterstock.

At least that’s what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants to ensure goes ahead one year from now.

China was awarded the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 after promising in the bidding stage to improve human rights conditions.

The opposite happened.

In many ways, 2008 served as a catalyst for the next decade of repression, spurred on by a surveillance network that originated from the Olympics itself. The IOC then awarded Beijing the 2022 Winter Games — the first city to host both the summer and winter events.

Enter the Uyghurs. The U.S. State Department last month determined that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.

Reports show that up to two million Uyghurs have been arbitrarily detained in internment camps where they are subjected to torture and political indoctrination. Alongside the camps, Uyghurs are subjected to enforced disappearances, forced labour, and coercive birth control campaigns. Authorities have destroyed cultural sites, prohibited most religious expression, and attempted to eliminate the use of the Uyghur language.

This is to say nothing of the arrest of Hong Kong pro-democracy leaders, forced labour and Orwellian surveillance in Tibet, and the elimination of language schools for ethnic Mongolians.

The IOC has demonstrated a profound unwillingness to say or do anything to address the problem.

For his part, IOC President Thomas Bach penned an op-ed to remind us that the IOC is “strictly politically neutral at all times.” The status quo thrives on neutrality, so declaring yourself neutral while atrocities unfold doesn’t get you off the hook, unfortunately.

Thomas Bach. File photo: Eric Garcetti, via Flickr.

Bach also suggested that the Olympics “cannot prevent wars and conflicts,” a tired line the IOC deploys when backed into a corner. His predecessor, Jacques Rogge, made similar remarks responding to criticism ahead of the 2008 Games, stating that “We are a sports organisation — there are limits to what we can do.”

The IOC would be content to ride out the criticism. If Thomas Bach had his way, the Games would go ahead without a hitch — no statements, no protests, no headaches for him and the rest of the IOC.

Given the chance that other governments will make determinations of genocide or crimes against humanity over the next 12 months, there are steps that stakeholders other than the IOC must take if they want to avoid being tarnished.

First, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) can ensure that athletes are secure enough to express themselves during the Games on subjects like human rights. Athletes criticised the IOC last year when it issued guidelines banning all forms of protest on the field of play or at the podium. The rule also stipulated that athletes must abide by “local laws,” which in authoritarian China leaves plenty open to interpretation and should be cause for concern for teams.

Hong Kong demonstrators protesting against alleged human rights violations in China in 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Who’s to say that the Chinese government will not detain athletes for expressing these opinions on Twitter, for example? The IOC needs to be much more forthcoming about this before any athlete steps on Chinese soil.

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee said in December that its athletes would not be penalised if they take part in any “respectful” protest during the Tokyo Games re-scheduled for this summer. Every NOC must take the same approach for both Tokyo and Beijing. Athletes have done too much for sport in their home countries not to warrant the backing of these national bodies.

Corporate sponsors are also in a bind. While we doubt that Samsung or Airbnb — both long-term Olympic sponsors — actively support atrocities against Uyghurs, the real question is to what extent can these sponsors can show that they emphatically oppose it.

Persistent questions of corporate complicity in Uyghur forced labour, for example, continue to circulate, so these companies will need to take steps to convince the public that they not only reject rights abuses but are in no way connected to them.

Broadcasters will also need to press the IOC for assurances that journalists covering the Games will be able to operate freely. The Committee to Protect Journalists found that the promises made about press freedom ahead of Beijing 2008 were mostly abandoned. In 2016, the IOC unveiled a new tool for journalists to report press freedom violations, but it remains to be seen how effective it might be in the Chinese context.

A banner of the 2008 Olympic Games held in Beijing, Photo: Adi Prabowo, via Flickr.

Finally, foreign diplomats should boycott the Olympics altogether. This would send a signal from the international community that while Beijing will go ahead with its party, world leaders will simply not show up.

There are no easy fixes. Nothing can be done to immediately alleviate the suffering of Uyghurs subjected to hellish conditions in camps, and the IOC has demonstrated a profound unwillingness to say or do anything of substance.

The least we can do as concerned activists, athletes, journalists, global companies and sporting bodies, is to speak out when necessary and have each other’s back when the situation demands it.


Peter Irwin is the Senior Program Officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. Zumretay Arkin is the Advocacy Manager of the World Uyghur Congress.


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