Post-Olympics, Some Athletes Speak Up About China’s Human Rights Abuses

As athletes head home after the Beijing Winter Olympics, some have now chosen to publicly speak out on human rights abuses in China. Free from the burden of upcoming competitions, daily COVID-19 tests, and government surveillance, these athletes have added a postscript to a Games that have been heavily censored and marred by controversy around genocide. Helen Davidson at the Guardian reported on Swedish Olympian Nils van der Poel’s criticism of the “extremely irresponsible” decision to allow China to host the Olympics

A Swedish gold medallist has said it was “extremely irresponsible” to hold the Winter Olympics in China because of the government’s human rights record.

Nils van der Poel, a 25-year-old speedskater, made the comments after returning home from the Beijing event, where officials have been at pains to keep politics and protest out despite diplomatic boycotts.

[…] “The Olympic Village was very nice, the Chinese people I met were absolutely amazing,” he said. “The Olympics is a lot, it’s a fantastic sporting event where you unite the world and nations meet. But so did Hitler before invading Poland, and so did Russia before invading Ukraine.

“I think it is extremely irresponsible to give it to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime is doing.” [Source]

British Olympian Gus Kenworthy made similar remarks just before his last run at the men’s freeski halfpipe final on Saturday. Mari Saito at Reuters described Kenworthy’s criticism of the Chinese government’s repression of LGBTQ+ rights

Freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights, said on Saturday the International Olympic Committee should take a host nation’s stance on human rights issues into consideration when awarding the Games.

[…] “I am absolutely a fan of [the] Olympics. I also think, that being said, because it’s the world stage and everyone is watching, there is an opportunity to create positive change and the IOC could help dictate that change by pushing on certain issues,” he said after the men’s freeski halfpipe final on Saturday.

“Those issues are human rights issues,” he said.

The British-born Kenworthy, who won silver for the United States in slopestyle in Sochi in 2014 and is now competing for Britain, said China had put on an impressive Games, given the pandemic, but stressed that the Olympics had the ability to bring about positive change.

“When there’s human rights and the country’s stance on LGBT, those issues should be taken into consideration by the IOC,” he said after finishing eighth. [Source]

Warren Barnsley from Australia’s 7 News reported on German Olympian Natalie Geisenberger and her desire to never return to China

Natalie Geisenberger, Germany’s luge champion who took home a sixth gold medal at these Games, went to Beijing having previously criticised China and even considered boycotting.

[…] Having now returned to Germany, she told newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that she will never return to China.

[…] “It has nothing to do with the pandemic. I wasn’t there because I really wanted to go to China, but because the IOC decided that the Olympic Games would take place in Beijing.” [Source]

Many athletes described their fears of speaking out while still in Beijing. “You have to be careful when you say what and where you say it,” said Geisenberger at a press conference after winning her gold medal. “Upon my return [to Germany] there may be a few more things to be said but here on site I am not going to say something.” Van der Poel told Swedish media before heading to Beijing: “I don’t think it would be particularly wise for me to criticize the system I’m about to transition to, if I want to live a long and productive life.” He said that during the Games, “We are very focused on being athletes and we don’t talk much about world politics.” American biathlete Deedra Irwin told PBS, “Personally, it’s not a place to, like, make huge statements and try to criticize. You need to be sensitive about when you bring stuff up and why you’re bringing it up.”

In January, even before the Games began, the Chinese government cast a pall on free speech by athletes when an official announced that “any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” John Leicester from The Associated Press described how the Chinese government was able to pressure foreign athletes into silence for the duration of the Games:

“We have seen an effective silencing of 2,800 athletes, and that’s scary,” said Noah Hoffman, a former U.S. Olympic skier and board member of the Global Athlete advocacy group pushing for Olympic reform.

[…] “We’re in China, so we play by China’s rules. And China makes their rules as they go, and they certainly have the power to kind of do whatever they want: Hold an athlete, stop an athlete from leaving, stop an athlete from competing,” [British Olympian Gus Kenworthy] said.

“I’ve also been advised to sort of tread lightly while I am here and that’s what I am trying to do.”

[…] “Prior to the statement [by an official from the Beijing Olympics Organizing Committee], we had been engaging with quite a few athletes,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director at Students for a Free Tibet. They “were expressing a lot of interest in learning more and being engaged in the human rights issue.”

Afterward, “there was a very, very distinct difference” and “one athlete even said to an activist directly: ‘I’ve been instructed not to take anything from you or speak to you,’” she said in a phone interview. [Source]

In a rare display of defiance, several athletes made public statements critical of China’s human rights record before or during the early stages of the Games. American figure skater Timothy LeDuc, who became the first openly-nonbinary athlete at the Winter Games, described the Chinese government’s abuses against the Uyghurs as “horrifying.” German luge champion Felix Loch declared on live broadcast from Beijing that he was in favor of a German diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. 

Turkish ski jumper Fatih Arda İpcioğlu used skis emblazoned with the flag of East Turkestan during his first round jump on February 5. The flag, which has long been banned in China, is strongly associated with the concept of an independent Uyghur homeland in Xinjiang. İpcioğlu later declined to confirm whether the design was an intentional message of support to the Uyghurs. Censors appear to have overlooked the design when CCTV aired his jump on Chinese national television. Karolos Grohmann and Mitch Phillips from Reuters described the reactions to İpcioğlu’s eye-catching skis:

“This was not a political statement. As you may know, the official Turkish flag includes a white crescent and a star on it,” Turkey’s Olympic Committee told Reuters.

“However, in order to avoid any confusion, only the National Olympic Committee of Turkey emblem (will be) used on our athlete’s skis for the remainder of the Games.”

Nonetheless, Uyghur advocates and sympathisers on social media were quick to jump on the issue.

“The first Turk to qualify in ski jumping, Fatih Arda Ipcioglu competed with the East Turkestan flag on his helmet and skis, protesting the Chinese persecution in China,” said Twitter user Bulent Aksoy. “Congratulations Fatih Arda.”

Another, Mustafa Karadeniz, said “Fatih Arda Ipcioglu participated in the competitions with the flag of East Turkestan in the heart of China. Thank you my brave brother.” [Source]

Journalists also faced notable censorship during their coverage of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Amid declining press freedom in China, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) released a statement documenting intimidation, obstruction, and harassment of foreign journalists in Beijing, despite promises by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that international standards of reporting would be upheld. While the IOC dismissed these as isolated incidents, the FCCC argued that “Government interference occurred regularly during the Games.” 



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