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No podium for human rights violations

No podium for human rights violations

Sports and politics have long been intertwined- historical figures like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ash, and Billie Jean King have played a huge role in advancing the cause of human rights both in the United States and around the world. Modern figures like Colin Kapernick, Megan Rapinoe, Enes Kanter Freedom, and many many others have continued to enhance the legacy of politically motivated athletes.

In past years, these efforts have continued at the Olympics. Athletes like Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Fumino Sugiyama have used the platform they earned through sport as an opportunity to push back against repression. To the extent that these demonstrations were controversial in their time, history has vindicated (and will continue to vindicate) the actions taken by these politically minded athletes.

However, as we approach the end of these 2022 Olympic games, examples of athlete activism have, unfortunately, been few and far between- there are a number of reasons for this. 

The most obvious of these is the direct repression that the non-democratic Chinese regime enforces on Chinese nationals and international visitors alike. Most of you taking the time to read this article will already know that the government in Beijing has a long legacy of violating human rights and weaponizing the state against racial and religious minorities living in China.This threat was made even more clearly by the very public crackdown on domestic dissent that took place in the weeks leading up to the games.

However, not all examples of repression come from expected sources…Perhaps the most surprising of these examples comes directly from the International Olympic Committee. The IOC continues to enforce the infamous Rule 50, which bars athletes from participating in political demonstrations while in Olympic venues or other areas. This rule was put in place in the aftermath of the courageous demonstration carried out by Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968, and it remains as chilling and regressive today as it was when it was implemented to curb those demonstrations against racism.

Additionally, representatives from the United States and other liberal democracies have advised athletes against making political statements. Perhaps the most shameful of these statements comes from Rep. Nancy Pelossi who suggested that athletes, “(should) not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government”, citing concerns about, “what the Chinese government might do to (American Olympian’s) reputation and families.”Cowardly statements such as these give credibility to the fundamentally un-American idea that any government can restrict fundamental human rights like the freedom of speech and religion through the threat of force.

Even worse, some Olympians have had their own “liberal” governments bar them from making statements regarding the human rights abuses that the Chinese government inflicts on its people by, functionally, issuing handlers to monitor statements made by their athletes. This precise thing took place when skiers from New Zealand were prevented from responding to a potentially political question when they were interrupted by a handler assigned to them by New Zealand and the IOC.

While there have been broad diplomatic boycotts of the games, these efforts have done little to increase public awareness regarding China’s human rights abuses- much less apply the sort of pressure that might actually lead to change. Further opportunities to increase public awareness about the severity of China’s human rights abuses have been wasted as a consequence of NBC’s unwillingness to highlight China’s continued violations of human rights while broadcasting the Games.

With all of this being said- to the extent that hosting the Olympic games is a sign of international prestige, it should also come with the responsibility to uphold global norms surrounding respect for human rights and individual autonomy. Without coupling the opportunity to host the Games with increased public scrutiny, the Olympics risk becoming an opportunity for repressive regimes to flex their muscles without fear of being shamed for their illiberal policies.

Sadly, it goes without saying that the current regime in China is no champion of either human rights or individual autonomy. Despite this, the authorities that promote, broadcast, and organize the Games have largely remained silent- this lack of active criticism is tantamount to a tacit endorsement of Beijing’s countless human rights violations.

The goal here is not to criticize the athletes who have not spoken out- it is reasonable that those individuals may not want to risk the wrath of a fundamentally illiberal regime. More than that, it is reasonable that these athletes may choose to dedicate their full attention to their crafts without concerning themselves with politics.

Insted, we should look critically at the public statements (or lack thereof as the case may be) made by the Olympic committee, mainstream media, leaders in the United States and in other democracies that have suggested that athletes would be better off staying quiet than they would be speaking out. Bestowing prestige on a bad actor by giving them the Olympic platform and then participating in the coverup is shameful and violates the most basic mission of the Olympic Games- “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.”


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association.