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Critics of China’s human rights record have a new sanction in mind for Beijing: stripping the city of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Lawmakers in a number of major Olympic countries, including the Netherlands, Canada and the U.S., have recently said the 2022 Games should be taken away from China because of its repression of its Uighur Muslim minority in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. The Dutch and Canadian parliaments have officially labeled that repression a “genocide,” as has the U.S. State Department.
In an interview, Sjoerd Sjoerdsma, a Dutch MP from the ruling coalition’s D66 party, pointed to “the largest detention of an ethnic minority since World War II” and highlighted stories of forced sterilization and rape as evidence that China should be stripped of the Olympics.
Sjoerdsma, whose social liberal party initiated the Dutch motion to call the treatment of the Uighur minority a genocide, said athletes should decide for themselves whether to go to Beijing, but he would prefer that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organizes the games, assigned the event to another country.
“The major sport organizations, whether it’s the Olympics or football, should consider much more thoroughly the human rights situation in a possible host country, and if it’s already allocated … see how the situation develops,” he said.
In early February, a group of seven Republican U.S. senators, including Rick Scott of Florida, all called for the Beijing Games to be moved. In mid-February, Canadian opposition Conservative leader Erin O’Toole made a similar demand.
This isn’t the first time the location of a looming Olympic Games has sparked debate. Ahead of the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany, teams from a number of countries, including the U.S., considered staying away. In 1980, the U.S. team boycotted the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
What effect the bubbling resistance has to Beijing as 2022 host remains to be seen. Protests also erupted ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 over China’s policies in Tibet, observers note, but the event went ahead as planned.
Ties Dams, a China researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank, said the idea of pressuring the Chinese government to change its treatment of the Uighur minority by threatening to boycott the Olympics was unlikely to happen and “naive.”
However, he said that the motion in the Dutch parliament to label the treatment of the Uighur people a genocide might at least force the new government, which will be elected on March 17, to pick sides and either support the hawkish stance on China taken by U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration or the more cooperative approach taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
Taking a European lead?
The Netherlands, a traditional Winter Olympics powerhouse thanks to its dominance in speed-skating events, has emerged recently as an advocate of using sporting events to hold host nations to account for their human rights policies.
Dutch lawmakers last month adopted a motion calling on the Dutch king and prime minister not to attend the football World Cup in Qatar if the Netherlands qualifies for next year’s tournament, citing the “appalling conditions” for migrant workers building the stadiums.
A similar motion for the Olympics was rejected, but lawmaker Sjoerdsma said he was hopeful it might still pass in the coming weeks, with some parties likely to change their position.
However, the Netherlands’ Olympic Committee sounded a note of caution about how far the country might be ready to go. In response to questions about a potential Dutch boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, a spokesman for the committee said: “In the Netherlands, we have the policy that a sports boycott is only talked about if the Netherlands as a country participates in a larger international boycott involving several sectors. That is not the case.”
Canadian Olympic bosses, prior to the national parliament’s genocide declaration, also said they will not support a boycott.
In an opinion piece from early February — which remains their position — the chiefs of the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees wrote that sporting boycotts amounted to “little more than a convenient and politically inexpensive alternative to real and meaningful diplomacy.”
China, which was angered by the pro-Tibet protests ahead of the 2008 Games, has made clear it is taking any threats of a 2022 boycott very seriously.
“It is very irresponsible for anyone to attempt to interfere with, obstruct or disrupt the organization and operation of the [Winter] Olympics, out of political motives,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said last month, responding to calls for an international boycott.
“We believe such moves would not be supported by the international community, and are doomed to failure,” Wang added.
Shortly afterwards, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell that the two sides should “take the opportunity of the Beijing Winter Olympics of next year to enhance exchanges on winter sports” and “foster new highlights” in bilateral cooperation.
In the same call, Wang also said China “opposes fabrication and dissemination of lies and fake news” on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
For its part, the IOC has tried to remain on the political sidelines, telling POLITICO that it remains “neutral” on all global political issues.
“Awarding the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee (NOC) does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country,” it said.
It is a position that has attracted its own criticism. Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University who has written extensively on the Olympics, accused the IOC of “hypocrisy.”
“The IOC has shown an unfortunate propensity for turning away from human rights atrocities in order to make sure that the games go on,” Boykoff said.
“The Olympic Charter is full of powerful ideas about equality and anti-discrimination, but the IOC ignores its own Charter when it is convenient for them to do so,” he said.
But what effect does the geopolitical maneuvering have on the real stars of any Olympics?
The Olympic competitors have been put in a difficult position, said Rob Koehler from Global Athlete, an athlete-led sports movement.
“As governments call for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games, once again athletes are being used as pawns,” Koehler said. “The IOC and IPC first and foremost are to blame for putting athletes in this position.”
“It is the IOC and IPC who decided to award the games to a country with an abysmal human rights record,” he said.
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