On 7 June, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would be taking a “shared approach,” with other countries in regards to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. In anticipation of the games, many spectators, human rights groups, and government officials have expressed criticism of the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in China. Other concerns involve the increased suppression of Hong Kong and silencing of Tibetan dissent. Many have subsequently called for a boycott of the event which is to be held in the capital Beijing. Until now, the United States has not given an official position on its intended involvement with the event.
The mistreatment of ethnic minorities in China has long been a concern of international leaders and human rights organizations. Since at least 2017, the government has been charged with detaining and imprisoning over one million Muslim Uyghurs and other members of marginalized groups in concentration camps. Moreover, other human rights violations upon communities are occurring simultaneously. According to the New York Times, “children have been removed from families to be raised in boarding schools…Mosques have been destroyed and Muslims ordered to eat pork, [and] women have been raped and forcibly sterilized.” Such behaviour has been fiercely criticized by international actors, who have long condemned China’s record of human rights violations.
In response, many athletes anticipating participating in the 2022 games have expressed interest in political protest and making statements at the event. However, such demonstrations face legal and physical risks. In addition to the International Olympic Committee’s “Rule 50,” which prohibits expressions of dissent at Olympic games and bars violators from future games, the Chinese government has promised to retaliate in the event of a boycott or public criticism. While no official decisions have been made, many other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, have discussed a complete withdrawal of their athletes from the games. This would enforce an economic and diplomatic boycott unless the games’ location is changed.
The difficulty of the international response lies in condemning China’s actions without punishing, or even endangering, the attending athletes. Boycotting the event completely, while effectively sending a strong message of disapproval, would not only unfairly penalize hopeful athletes but could also risk a potentially lethal response from China. Yet, participating in the games, especially without proper free speech liberties in place, would convey endorsement or complacency of mistreatment and may compromise the rights and safety of participants.
The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee has officially changed its stances to allow athletes to protest. However, participants who partake will likely still face repercussions from the ICC. Dissidents may also receive backlash or punishment from China, which has expressed its intentions regarding negative criticism. Additionally, existing tensions between China and its international critics have halted the action to a standstill, as any sudden gestures will likely result in severe global consequences. Resultingly, statements from countries are vague, ambivalent, and often rooted in unclear plans. Such uncertainty leaves the world wondering what will happen – if anything.
Many speculators have also noted that China may be motivated to host the event in order to gain additional international legitimacy. Such legitimacy may potentially detract from the recent backlash they have faced. Yet, this tool can be applied in both directions: while participating in the Olympics could demonstrate approval of China’s actions, it could also provide an international platform for athletes and other involved parties to raise awareness of human rights abuses.
Moreover, to properly address this issue, China and its critics must take a collaborative approach to amend the stance on the games. Many participating countries are in disagreement regarding their next steps but, as a global event, it is critical that it is met with strategic forethought and a diverse array of contributing voices.
While the fate of the games’ existence remains unclear, in the meantime, the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics begs immediate reform. In addition to the acts of genocide that the event would be condoning, the Olympics have long posed other harmful effects too. Over time, the Olympics have become highly commercialized and thus structured to benefit corporations who are profiting from advertising, travel expenditures, sponsorships, tourism, and more.
Additionally, much of the physical and emotional abuse inflicted upon athletes have come to light in recent years – though the majority of reports have been overlooked or dismissed. Furthermore, cities hosting the games are often prime examples of gentrification, exploitation, and upheaval of existing communities – all of which disproportionately affect lower-income workers. The exorbitant costs required to host the event and all its associated expenses also put an overwhelming economic strain on countries that are not economically secure enough.
If the Olympics are to continue, the emphasis on corporate profit must be replaced by investment in communities that are the most impacted, both physically and economically, by the games. By providing more stable and durable long-lasting infrastructure instead of temporary arenas erected simply to cater to those more systemically privileged, the Olympics would become more sustainable and ethical. Additionally, the environmental impact of the event, as well as the impact on the community, could be dampened if more permanent facilities were created instead of new venues constructed every four years. These structures also consequently uproot the surrounding inhabitants ahead of each event. Essentially, the games should be about the athletes – not the sponsors profiting or the promised economic prospects.
However, despite these effects, the Olympics continue to be held with little to no changes. What’s more, such patterns have limited the number of states willing to host the games and thus partake in harmful behaviour; both Sweden and Norway withdrew their bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympics and many other European countries have conveyed skepticism and disenchantment regarding the event. Its heavy environmental footprint, the impact of its steep production cost on the economy, and disapproval of the ICC’s ethical practices are major contributing factors to dissent according to the New York Times.
While there is no “magic bullet” solution to the flaws of the Olympics, its numerous issues demand reform – if not altogether transformation or termination. For now, it is unclear exactly what this “shared approach” will entail, but Blinken has indicated that more information will be released in the coming weeks. Until then, we must consider: what is the price we are willing to pay for the Olympics?
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