How we ended up with a Winter Games amid China’s human rights crisis

How we ended up with a Winter Games amid China’s human rights crisis

THE WINTER OLYMPICS begins this week in Beijing, and that is a harder sentence to process than it might seem. For some, the first few words — the Winter Olympics begins — matter most. For others, the last few — in Beijing — hang heaviest.

For most of us, though, the feeling about this Olympics is something in the middle. Our love for sports and competition, passion and glory is deep and abiding … but is also not enough to completely divorce a spectacle from its surroundings.

So the conflict we all face right now is this: Can we be glad that the world’s best athletes are gathering to show their incredible skills on snow and ice? What if we know that to do that, those athletes have to go to an authoritarian country where, while they’re skating and skiing and sliding, there are — according to human rights groups and nations including the United States — brutal crimes against humanity actively happening not so far away?

Can we be grateful that during a scary and wearying pandemic, we will be able to watch and be inspired by amazing performers on a nightly basis? Can we? What if we remember that the show we’re captivated by is being put on by a nation which regularly censors free speech and where a woman effectively disappeared from public life after she alleged sexual assault against a former government official?

It is hard, this Olympics. It is hard. Chloe Kim. The Uyghurs. Mikaela Shiffrin. Peng Shuai. Shaun White. Xi Jinping. We can try to separate these things. We can try. But the truth is that, with this Olympics — maybe more than any Olympics we’ve ever had — nothing feels clear. Nothing feels easy. Nothing feels certain.

SOMETIMES IT HELPS to try to understand how a situation came to be. And strange as it might seem, the basic explanation for why a temperate city like Beijing — average snow days per year: 6 — is even hosting the Winter Olympics in the first place has a lot to do with Norwegian politics. And Yao Ming. And, of course, money.

Here is what happened: Six-and-a-half years ago, 85 members of the International Olympic Committee took part in a special vote held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center in Malaysia. The vote was to award hosting rights for the 2022 Winter Games, and on that day there were only two candidate cities left: Beijing and Almaty, then the capital of Kazakhstan, also an authoritarian nation.

As you might imagine, many voters weren’t especially happy with the choices, especially given what they thought they’d be voting on.

“Looking back, I don’t think anyone, including the Chinese themselves, thought of Beijing as a serious candidate at the start of all this,” said Stratos Safioleas, a longtime global sports consultant who has worked on multiple Olympic and World Cup bids. “No one did,” he continued. “Everyone was excited about the European possibilities. Nobody was thinking about China.”

Safioleas was talking about the initial interest in Oslo, the capital of Norway. People were thrilled about Oslo. There were other more-traditional venues bandied about in the years leading up to the bid being awarded, including Stockholm and Lviv, Ukraine, but Oslo was the one that always seemed most likely. Oslo would look good on TV. It had local fans who loved winter sports. It had a Winter Games history. In its own 14-point evaluations of the potential sites, the IOC gave Oslo the highest scores by far.

Only then, about six months before the final vote, Oslo backed out. In addition to financial concerns about actually staging the Games, Norwegian politicians (and their constituents) were put off by, among other things, the IOC’s alleged demands for perks during the Olympics. The IOC’s requirements included an audience with Norway’s king and a cocktail party for IOC executives with the Norwegian royal family (paid for by the Norwegian government) as well as “seasonal fruit and cakes” in members’ hotel rooms, mandatory smiles for all arriving IOC members from hotel employees, extended hours for hotel bars and service of only Coca-Cola products. The IOC also requested that local schools be canceled during the Games and residents be encouraged to go away on vacation.

“Norway is a rich country, but we don’t want to spend money on wrong things, like satisfying the crazy demands from IOC apparatchiks,” wrote Frithjof Jacobsen, chief political commentator for the newspaper VG. “These insane demands that they should be treated like the king of Saudi Arabia just won’t fly with the Norwegian public.”

Christophe Dubi, executive director of the Olympic Games, blamed the media for distorting the IOC’s requests and said Oslo’s withdrawal was based on “half-truths” and “factual inaccuracies.”

Whatever the circumstances, this much was sure: Oslo was gone. And with that reality clear, organizers of Almaty’s bid suddenly had renewed hope. After all, strange as an Olympics in Kazakhstan might seem on its face, the Almaty bid felt in that moment that it was the only candidate with something genuine to offer: an actual ski mountain, specifically, as well as some semblance of a winter sports culture.

Beijing didn’t really do winter. It was trying to become the first city to ever host both a Summer and Winter Games, but there were no quality ski slopes or sliding venues or interest, really, in any of those things among Chinese people. Almaty’s bid slogan — “Keeping it Real” — was a not-subtle-at-all shot at Beijing’s proposal to, essentially, stage the entire Games on artificial, not-especially-environmentally-sensitive man-made venues.

Almaty, its organizers argued, had actual from-the-sky snow. And a gorgeous ski jump venue. And a plan that called for very little travel between the various competition sites. When I visited Almaty a few months before the vote while reporting for The New York Times, organizers were downright bullish. I had a meeting with the mayor of Almaty in his ornate City Hall office, and when I asked if he really thought his city could win, he said (in one of my favorite quotes of all-time), “Once you say you are a mushroom, you might as well get into the soup.”

Almaty really tried to get into that soup. Safioleas, who consulted with Almaty’s bid, said there was sincere optimism among their group on the day of the vote in Kuala Lumpur, a genuine belief that this former Soviet republic could show the world it was possible for a developing nation to host one of the world’s biggest events.

But China — as it often is — was simply too big in every measure. Almaty talked about its snow and its small footprint for the Games; Beijing played up its $40 billion investment in the memorable 2008 Summer Olympics. Almaty pushed its status as a newcomer, a fresh face in the Olympic landscape; Beijing highlighted the massive revenues it produced in ’08 and the passion, organizers said, of its billion-plus citizens. Almaty’s main athlete ambassador was Denis Ten, a charming but largely unknown figure skater who was a surprise bronze medalist at the 2014 Games; Beijing turned to Yao Ming, one of the most famous athletes on Earth, and featured him in a comedic turn as a hockey goalie during a video portion of their final presentation to voters.

Beijing, essentially, positioned the Games as the greatest show on the planet and the voters’ job as simply to find the biggest and best and glitziest theater at which to stage it. You know our track record, they were saying. We made you plenty of money last time. Why would you go somewhere else?

David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian who was at the convention center in Malaysia that day, told me he will always remember the coffee break in between the final presentations and the vote. Voters and observers kibbitzed in a sprawling hallway — Yao was there, towering over everyone and glad-handing executives — and one side of the hallway was a very long window that looked out on to the street.

Once the coffee break began and the hallway filled, Wallechinsky said, hundreds of Chinese suddenly appeared outside the window — as if on cue — and banded together, waving signs and cheering about the possibility of hosting the Winter Games right in front of the voters.

“They had the organizational skills to orchestrate something like that,” Wallechinsky said. “What other country would do something like that? What other country would want to?”

When the break ended, the voters returned to their room to cast their ballots. And it is worth remembering that many of those 85 voters were (and still are) sports federation leaders in their home countries. They are people who care, very much, about funding and growth and development of the sports they love — which, in many cases, may not be winter sports at all.

Even at the Olympics, athletics, at bottom, is a business. And most of the voters were businesspeople.

“Think about it: if you’re running a country’s swimming federation or badminton federation, is it better to be on the right side of things with Kazakhstan or China?” one former senior Olympic official told me. “Can Kazakhstan help you? Can they give you money and open markets?”

The official laughed. “Also, if you think voters didn’t think about whether they wanted to spend a month at a decent hotel in Almaty or a month at a five-star hotel in Beijing, you’re crazy, too,” he added. “These are people. That stuff matters. A lot.”

When the votes were counted that day in Malaysia, the result was not surprising: One voter abstained. Almaty received 40 votes. Beijing got 44.

WHEN JON TIBBS first started working with the Chinese Olympic committee on their bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, one of the things that stood out to him was the Chinese officials’ willingness to engage on questions about human rights issues.

Tibbs, a Briton who has worked in international communications for decades, told me he was always candid in his conversations with the Chinese executives about what they needed to do to successfully convince the world they should be awarded an Olympics.

“They avoided what they did on previous bids, which was saying, ‘We’re not going to talk about politics,'” Tibbs said. “In 2008, they were prepared to say, ‘Look, human rights is a global issue. And we think using sports as a way to bring the world to China puts us in a better position to change the country from within.’ They chose their words carefully always, and there was a lot of scrutiny then and they knew that, but they also knew what they had to do.”

Tibbs, who did not work with China on the 2022 Games, gave a soft laugh. “This time seems to have been very different,” he said.

That has been a common observation in recent years among those in the global sports community. Where China once was more conciliatory (or at least made head fakes in that direction), as if dutifully tip-toeing into the grand salon of the Olympic movement, the sentiment around these 2022 Games has been decidedly colder. Beginning with the bottom-line messaging of their final bid presentation and continuing for the years since, the Chinese, clearly ever-more confident in their unshakable place in the larger world, have shown little interest in “changing from within.” Or changing at all.

“The past decade has, if anything, strengthened Chinese leaders’ view that economic reform is possible without liberalizing politics,” Rana Miller and Elsbeth Johnson, both professors and China experts, wrote in an essay about China’s rise for the Harvard Business Review. They continued, “The truth, then, is that China is not an authoritarian state seeking to become more liberal but an authoritarian state seeking to become more successful – politically as well as economically.”

In this, of course, China under President Xi Jinping is not alone. As one global sports executive said to me recently, “Does anyone really believe the Chinese don’t read the papers?” And what he was saying, however antiquatedly, was that the Chinese have surely seen the steady stream of autocratic, regressive or institutionally corrupt governments that have successfully gained hosting rights and put on major sporting events over the past decade despite showing little regard for the concerns of the rest of the world.

Think about what we’ve seen or will see shortly: A Russia Olympics. A Russia World Cup. The Euros and World Track and Field championships in Azerbaijan. A Qatar World Cup. Championship golf in Saudi Arabia.

Proponents of the idea that the Olympics can be a force for good often point to Korea as the shining beacon — hosting the Seoul Games in 1988 is seen as a significant factor in South Korea’s adoption of parliamentary democracy — but it is also not lost on anyone that 1988 was more than 30 years ago now. Has Russia changed? Has Qatar? Is it possible, the thinking goes, that it’s time to stop pointing to something that happened during the Ronald Reagan presidency as emblematic of what might happen today?

Shortly after Beijing won the 2022 bid, Gian Franco Kasper, then the head of the International Skiing Federation and an honorary IOC member, told a Swiss newspaper that the choice of Beijing made perfect sense. “Dictators can organize events such as this without asking the people’s permission,” Kasper said. “For us, everything is easier in dictatorships.”

Kasper’s language was startling, to be sure, and he later tried to walk back his words, putting out a statement saying his comments were “not meant to be taken literally.” But many in the Olympic community felt he had done little more than saying out loud the part everyone else had been whispering.

Increasingly, countries such as China (and Russia and Qatar) have found the IOC, FIFA and other global sports entities to be ideal partners. Where other countries might balk at the financial considerations of putting on these events or be put off by the demands of the organization’s executives, autocrats have little hesitation because there are no constituents to appease or public funding to consider. And while a popular train of thought is that nations like China want to host events such as the Olympics to normalize or ingratiate themselves among the more progressive countries of the world, the truth is that, in today’s world, such theory may be becoming outdated. Now it seems the audience that matters most is actually internal.

“It has very little to do with them wanting to ‘fit in’ with the rest of the world,” Wallechinsky said. “This is about the Chinese government being able to say to their citizens, ‘Look what we have done. Look what we have brought you. Look what China has accomplished.’ It’s propaganda to them. It’s Olympic propaganda.”

That is why, Wallechinsky says, the Chinese have shown no deference to the increasing scrutiny on their treatment of the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim group of 12 million or so in Xinjiang province that, according to human rights groups and nations including the United States, are being subjected to such measures as internment in prison camps, torture, systemic sexual abuse, family separation, mass surveillance and forced sterilization. The United States is among a growing list of countries who label the situation as a genocide. China has denied the accusations as lies.

That is why, too, there was little fallout after Peng Shuai, a Chinese Olympic tennis player, accused a former government official of sexual assault and then largely vanished from public life before reappearing weeks later and recanting her story. The situation, which China critics said was very much in line with how that government stifles unwelcome charges against its leaders, was hardly what one would expect from any other country — especially in the post-#MeToo era — that is concerned with its image.

Rather, it felt more like the actions of a government which knows there is little reason to do anything differently. A government that knows the IOC — much like many companies and many people around the world — has come to rely on China to deliver, whatever the personal cost. As if to show the point, IOC President Thomas Bach participated in multiple video calls with Peng, drawing criticism that the IOC is aiding China’s communications on the matter.

When pressed, the IOC continues to fall back on the notion that they are not a political organization and have no responsibility for anything outside the scope of their competitions.

“We have no ability to go into a country and tell them what to do,” John Coates, an IOC vice president, said at a press conference in October. “All we can do is award the Olympics to a country, under conditions set out in a host contract . . . and then ensure they are followed.”

As for human rights concerns specifically, Coates said that the IOC’s responsibility is simply “to ensure that there are no human rights abuses in respect of the conduct of the Games within the national Olympic committees or within the Olympic movement.”

But this, of course, is exactly the sentiment largely parroted by the hosting nations themselves, defiantly demanding that everyone simply focus on the athletes and pay no attention to anything else. In fact, Yang Shu, deputy director general of the Beijing organizing committee’s international relations department, even invoked the revered “Olympic spirit” in a recent briefing by the Chinese Embassy in which he openly threatened athletes who spoke out against China while at the Olympics.

“Any behavior or speeches that are against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment,” Yang said, adding that those punishments could include ejection from the Olympics and even arrest.

Again, the unvarnished ease with which the Chinese delivered such a threat was jarring to many, even if — by now — it probably shouldn’t be.

“I think most of us hoped that after the 2008 Olympics, there really would be a different feel to China, that they would have been inspired to change,” said Angela Schneider, a former Canadian Olympian who is now a professor and leading expert on ethics in global sports. “That was always one of the arguments about why it made sense to go forward with China.”

Schneider sighed. “And yet I think,” she continued, “that it’s fair to say that things have actually gone backward in that regard.”

BEFORE SCHNEIDER MOVED into academia, she won a silver medal in rowing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. And at that Games, there were no athletes competing from the Soviet Union or more than a dozen other countries who chose to boycott in retaliation for the United States’s boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

Schneider told me she has always felt that her own medal has “an asterisk” because of the missing athletes, and thus says she is particularly sensitive to the notion of athletes using their participation as an activist’s cudgel.

“It’s not especially effective and the athletes end up paying a price for nothing,” she said, adding that if the U.S. had boycotted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as many suggested in protest of Hitler’s Nazi party, “Jesse Owens never would have happened. And how would not being there have made a bigger impact than that?”

The question, then, is what should athletes do? What should any of us do if we love sports, love competition and love the notion of the Olympics but have trouble with a movement that embraces leaders and countries with such serious problems?

It is a universal question. Already, we have seen Olympic sponsors playing down their connection to this Games, with The Wall Street Journal noting that several big brands — including Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble — did not launch their typical pre-Olympics advertising blitz ahead of Beijing, seemingly in an attempt to lessen their association with China.

And even members of Congress are raising concerns, with Republicans recently sending a letter to NBC Universal executives questioning how the network plans to cover the Olympics without ignoring the human rights abuses taking place. (NBC said it plans to include two China news analysts as part of its daily coverage.)

Diplomatic boycotts, like the ones the U.S. and other countries are instituting for this Games, are appropriate, Schneider said, because they put a blanket responsibility on politicians — who are presumably charged with taking on larger issues — as opposed to asking athletes, the vast majority of whom will only compete in a single Olympics, to forego their sporting dreams for something completely unrelated to competition.

But that does not mean that athletes shouldn’t use their spotlights, Schneider says. Human rights, for example, are mentioned within the four different fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter, and “I think Olympians do have a responsibility to some degree,” Schneider said, “because of that charter. Because of that oath. … It doesn’t mean its compulsory. But it means you should speak when you can.”

That last part — when you can — remains the trickiest. During a seminar hosted by Human Rights Watch in mid-January, several speakers suggested that Olympic athletes could be in danger if they speak out while in Beijing, due to the murkiness of Chinese laws related to protests as well as a lack of support for athlete speech from the IOC. “There’s really not much protection that we believe is going to be afforded to athletes,” Rob Koehler, the director general of the Global Athlete group, said at one point during the virtual panel, adding that his group’s recommendation is for athletes to compete and then make whatever statements they want to make once they have left China.

The Chinese reaction to Peng’s allegations should be seen as a cautionary tale, added Yaqiu Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Chinese laws are very vague on the crimes that can be used to prosecute people’s free speech,” she said. “There are all kinds of crimes that can be levelled at peaceful, critical comments. And in China the conviction rate is 99%.”

Because of that, there have been few examples of athletes who will compete in Beijing coming anywhere close to saying anything remotely critical of China in the run-up to the Games. Noah Hoffman, a former Olympic cross-country skier for the United States, said during the seminar that he knows U.S. officials are discouraging athletes from speaking up because of concern over potential consequences, and “that makes me upset,” he said, because athletes have such an important voice. Yet even saying that, Hoffman continued, his own advice would be for athletes to speak “when they get back” because it is, in this moment, clearly safer.

If that notion — that an athlete should self-censor because they literally fear for their own safety — feels unsettling, it is just one of many such realities at these Olympics. And for those of us who want to revel in the international wonder of the Games, it is just another reminder that these Games are so different in so many ways.

Many broadcasters, including NBC, are not sending announcers to Beijing, citing concerns about China’s COVID protocols — a stance taken by many other media outlets who would normally provide robust coverage of the Olympics. (ESPN originally had plans to cover the games with numerous staffers on-site in China but recently pulled back and will cover the Olympics remotely.)

The list of issues stretches on: Public health policies and testing. Air quality. Security worries related to the amount of information China is requiring anyone who enters the country to disclose electronically, which has prompted many countries to suggest athletes bring “burner” phones instead of their personal devices because of suspected privacy breaches. Then, as everyone knew from the moment Beijing won the bid, there is also the artificial quality to it all, the knowledge that the mirage of a “traditional winter” in the Chinese mountains will, quite literally, stop right at the television camera frame’s edge.

Within the Olympic world, there is hope that things will get better in future years. The Olympics will go to places like Paris and Los Angeles and Milan, Italy, for upcoming Games, and the IOC has made human rights a central part of its requirements for awarding bids going forward — though, given the IOC’s track record, deserved skepticism about the enforcement of that still remains.

The question of what to do with China, however, is going nowhere for anyone anytime soon, including the IOC. And for the next three weeks, it will be squarely in front of everyone.

While most of the time, IOC and federation officials adore the actual Games and the opportunity to bask in the glow of glittering competition, with Beijing there is an element for some of simply grinding through.

When I asked one former Olympic official if he’d heard from his brethren that they were excited for the Games to begin, he chuckled. And then he sighed.

“Yes,” he said. “But mostly because I think there’s a decent number who just wish this whole thing would be over.”

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