The case that The politicians and activists How to boycott the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics is simple: China’s persecution of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang is a continuing human rights violation that the world community should not reward. But even if a boycott were to take place – and it is far from certain – that wouldn’t accomplish much. The Chinese government would still have a large national and global audience for a tightly controlled media event that Olympic rules require to be free of all politics. Foreign broadcasters could comment on the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but the action on the tracks, in the stadiums and on Olympic TV would only be about sports.
There is a better way to raise the profile of human rights during the Beijing Olympics. In the coming weeks, the International Olympic Committee start reviewing recommendations reform its ban on the political expression of athletes during games. Rather than attempting to change Beijing, activists and politicians should pressure the IOC and its donors to allow political expression consistent with the principles of the Olympic Charter, including its policy against racism.
Since ancient times, Olympic organizers have tried to promote peace and understanding by disinfecting the games of politics. 8th-century Greece adopted a Olympic truce who suspended all conflicts during games (and for a week before and after), and modern games do the same. Since 1956, the IOC has obligatory host cities ban politics at olympic venues. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of political, religious or racial manifestation or propaganda is permitted on the sites, Olympic venues or other places.”
This ban did not prevent the politics of games. On the contrary, official neutrality has allowed authoritarian regimes to cooperate with the political vacuum to promote programs that do not conform to the Olympic ideal. In 1936, after the IOC approved the games in Berlin, he backed down as the Nazis decorated their stadiums with swastikas. No host country has come this far since then, but over the decades, countries from Japan to Germany to China have used the Olympics and its politically cleansed spaces to promote – without criticism – their emergence as world powers.
The IOC’s tolerance for this type of policy stands in stark contrast to the hostility it and many National Olympic Committees have shown towards individual athletes speaking out. The most notable example occurred at the 1968 games, when the IOC excluded Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith for raising fists during a Black Power salute at a medal ceremony. This seemed to deter the other athletes. But the advent of pro athlete activism in the United States and Europe has raised the prospect of further medal events. In 2019, two American athletes received 12 month probations by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee for taking a knee and raising a fist at the Pan Am Games.
The IOC maintains its policy. Last year, before Tokyo 2020, it Posted new rule 50, which, among other things, prohibits kneeling, hand gestures and the display of political signs and armbands Those inspired by BLM worn by Naomi Osaka during last year’s US Open tennis tournament). Meanwhile, senior IOC officials continue to defend Rule 50. Dick Pound, the longest-serving IOC member, recently wrote that at the Olympics “politics, religion, race and sexual orientation are put aside”.
In response to athletes’ frustration with this attitude, the USOPC recently ad it will allow demonstrations respectful of racial and social justice to support marginalized groups during the next Olympic trials (but not the Tokyo games). The term tolerated includes kneeling and wearing clothes that contain messages such as “Trans Lives Matter” or “Equality”. In form, these don’t go beyond what’s allowed in most US professional leagues. The main difference is that most professional leagues do not have an equivalent to the medal platform. Nevertheless, the American reform is an excellent example for the IOC.
The benefits would go beyond the athletes and the causes they support. If the IOC allowed a USOPC-style rule in Beijing 2022, “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts could blend in with the shirts of other marginalized groups, including those who support Tibetans and Uighurs. China might prefer that none of the shirts were allowed, but if the IOC found such an expression acceptable, the host would be faced with a difficult choice: to tolerate the rule or shut it down in front of a global audience. Either answer would highlight human rights in China more effectively than a boycott could.
Last year, the IOC commissioned surveyed Olympic athletes to find out their views on freedom of expression, and tasked the IOC Athletes’ Commission to develop results-based recommendations by the end of the month. There is no timeline for the IOC to respond. Rather than pushing for an Olympic boycott, activists and politicians should pressure the IOC to set a deadline before Beijing 2022 to reform Rule 50 and push for a policy consistent with that adopted by the USOPC. A parallel campaign to persuade the main Olympics sponsors and benefactors such as Airbnb, Inc., Visa, Inc., Coca-Cola Co and NBCUniversal Media LLC to suspend their financial support until the IOC allows athletes to express their support for racial and social justice would enforce the leverage required.
Ultimately, it should be up to Olympic athletes to determine whether Beijing 2022 becomes a platform for discussing human rights. The IOC should stay away and leave politics to them.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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