On the Eve of Olympic Opening Ceremonies, Disquiet Dominates

Nerves are running high for athletes and organizers on the eve of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The prospect of further boycotts by activists, diplomats, and athletes threatens to spoil organizers’ hopes of a seamless spectacle. The possibility of COVID-19 infections and potential government punishment of free speech imperils athletes’ hard-earned Olympic moment. For all involved, a successful Winter Olympic Games is far from guaranteed.

The Opening Ceremonies present the first test. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Josh Rogin announced that some athletes are considering boycotting the Opening Ceremonies on Friday over China’s human rights record

Olympic athletes from multiple countries who want to show solidarity with the victims of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses have been quietly preparing to boycott the Opening Ceremonies, according to human rights activists who have been helping to educate and organize them.

[…] The athletes have also come under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its sponsors to avoid controversy. But if they don’t feel safe speaking out, the activists told them, skipping the Opening and Closing Ceremonies would at least deny the Chinese government the ability to use those ceremonies to legitimize its abuses and whitewash its crimes. Activists told me that athletes from at least two Western teams confirmed they will not be attending the Opening Ceremonies as their personal form of protest.

[…] The exact number of athletes planning to boycott the Opening Ceremonies is unknown. Activists told me several athletes expressed fear of being arrested by Chinese authorities or being punished by their home nation’s Olympics organization if they protested at all. Some athletes told the activists they would explain why they skipped the Opening Ceremonies only after the games ended, remaining silent while in China to avoid punishment. [Source]

Taiwan is another country whose athletes were set to boycott the Opening Ceremonies. Initially, the Taiwanese decision to boycott was based on flight delays, COVID-19 restrictions, and the expectation of Chinese propaganda efforts, such as displaying pro-unification messages and co-opting Taiwanese volunteers for the ceremonies. But after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) implicitly threatened to downgrade Taiwan’s status by putting its athletes alongside Chinese-run Hong Kong, Taiwan reversed its position, according to a senior Taiwanese official. Its 15-member team, including four athletes, will compete under the name “Chinese Taipei.” 

The Opening Ceremonies will also be the first test of freedom of expression by athletes. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from engaging in political protests at Olympic events, and governments have warned their athletes that their speech may be subject to both Olympic rules and the Chinese judicial system. Chinese officials have warned that those whose behavior is “against the Olympic spirit” would face “certain punishment.” Worried about possible retaliation for protests, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi warned American athletes to “be safe.” 

Freedom of expression related to LGBTQ+ issues will also be tested during the ceremonies. This year, a record number of out LGBTQ+ athletes will participate in the Winter Olympics. In the Opening Ceremonies of previous Olympic Games, out athletes have openly expressed their sexual orientations in various ways, including marriage proposals during live broadcasts. Some worry whether this year’s games will offer a similarly welcoming environment, given that the Chinese government has dramatically increased censorship of LGBTQ+ expression, online and off.

Activists abroad have been busy preparing alternatives and ripostes to the Opening Ceremonies. On Thursday, activists staged protests in over 65 cities worldwide to protest the Beijing Winter Olympics, with some calling for the resignation of IOC president Thomas Bach and more government action beyond diplomatic boycotts. In an effort to persuade global audiences not to watch the Olympic Games, activists will be offering an alternative Opening Ceremony on Friday. At Reuters, Stephanie Nebehay reported on a Tibetan protest against the Olympics at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland

Several hundred Tibetan and Uyghur activists marched on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Thursday, a day before Beijing 2022 opens, accusing the Swiss-based organisation of complicity in “atrocities” committed against ethnic minorities in China.

[…] The marchers – many wrapped in the red, yellow and blue flag of Tibet and dressed in traditional robes – chanted and played drums, holding a minute of silence for their “martyrs” before starting a “peace march” along Lake Geneva.

Their chants included “Beijing Olympics, Genocide Games”, “Tibet is burning” and “Long live Dalai Lama”.

They presented a petition to IOC security staff signed by the presidents of 10 Tibetan communities in Europe. [Source]

The same day, three activists from Students for a Free Tibet were scheduled to stand trial for alleged offences during their protest of the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Greece last October. Their trial has reportedly been postponed until December. Students for a Free Tibet compiled statements from several organizers participating in Thursday’s worldwide protests:

Zumretay Arkin, World Uyghur Congress said: “Due to the superhuman efforts of campaigners around the world, governments, sponsors and the public are waking up to the fact that these Games are nothing less than a propaganda event for a government carrying out genocide. The only way forward for the IOC is top to bottom reform, with the likes of Thomas Bach sent packing.”

[…] Kamaltürk Yalqun, Campaign for Uyghurs said: ‘’At the age of 17 when I carried the torch for 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, I was genuinely thrilled to be part of an event that was supposed to be promoting friendship, sportsmanship, and a sense of global citizenship. Looking back at it now, I realized the biggest aim of China for holding the 2008 Olympics was to showcase the prestige of CCP to the world and to nurture a zealot nationalism in its borders. Today, in light of the gross human rights violations of China against Uyghurs, Tibetans, and others, it has become more crucial than ever for us to stand up in solidarity against China and to demonstrate our decisiveness to stop China from continuing its human rights violations and atrocities.’’

[…] Dr Zoȅ Bedford from Australia Tibet Council said: “Campaigners around the world have joined forces to take on the CCP and the IOC and we are winning the argument. Governments are boycotting, sponsors are nervous, athletes are speaking out. Because of our efforts, the narrative running up to Beijing 2022 is not about who will win the bobsleigh, but how many political prisoners are locked up under CCP rule.  Now we are calling on the public to switch off these bloodstained Winter Games and join our movement for freedom, justice and human rights.” [Source]

More diplomats have also chosen to snub the Opening Ceremonies. On Thursday, India’s foreign ministry announced that the senior representative at its Beijing embassy would not attend the Opening or Closing Ceremonies. The news came after Chinese state media revealed that the Olympic torch-bearers would include a PLA soldier involved in a 2020 border skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops that left at least 20 Indians and four Chinese soldiers dead. The soldier had been hailed as a hero by Chinese state media. “It is indeed regrettable that the Chinese side has chosen to politicize an event like the Olympics,” said Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Arindam Bagchi. The same day, IOC president Thomas Bach reminded reporters that the Games should never be a forum for “political issues.” 

Nevertheless, the Games have inspired numerous political bodies to criticize the Chinese government’s human rights abuses. Last month, the Japanese parliament passed a resolution expressing concern about human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Last week, the French parliamentary opposition passed a motion calling on its government to condemn the CCP’s “crimes against humanity and genocide” against the Uyghurs. In a reprieve for the Chinese government, however, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has decided to delay the publication of its report on Xinjiang until after the Beijing Winter Olympics, following an agreement with the Chinese government. According to the South China Morning Post, the UN was granted access to Xinjiang on the condition that the trip should be “friendly” and not framed as an investigation. Human rights activists criticized both the delay and the reported agreement between the UN and China, amid concerns that the UN report might not be published before the next Human Rights Council session concludes in late March. 

Back in Beijing, the closed-loop bubble insulating those participating in the Games has provided a unique, nerve-racking experience for those lucky enough to gain entrance. Despite constant testing and other strict protocols, hundreds of COVID-19 cases have been detected. On Thursday, 26 new cases were reported within the bubble, with an additional 29 cases among those arriving at the airport to participate in the Games. Alexandra E. Petri from The New York Times described how these new cases have already prevented numerous Olympians from participating in their sporting events

The Ukrainian figure skater Ivan Shmuratko tested positive for the virus, sidelining him from the men’s component of the team figure skating event on Friday and preventing Ukraine from accumulating any points. The Ukrainian Olympic Committee said it hoped that Shmuratko, who is making his Olympic debut, could recover in time for the start of the men’s individual competition on Tuesday.

Germany has also been thwarted in the team figure skating competition after the pairs skater Nolan Seegert tested positive. Minerva Fabienne Hase, his skating partner, has so far tested negative, but there are no alternates for the pair. Rather than withdraw altogether, Germany is moving forward in the team event but will not acquire any points in the pairs skating component, dashing any hopes for a medal.

The world’s No. 2 Nordic combined athlete, Jarl Magnus Riiber of Norway, also tested positive for the virus. Riiber, who won silver as part of a team event in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, was a medal contender in Beijing. He posted a photograph of himself on Instagram with the caption, “The gold is yours, guys,” using a gold medal emoji and adding a virus emoji and a winking face at the end. The first Nordic combined event is on Wednesday. [Source]



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