How Do We Reconcile the Olympics and China's Human Rights Crisis?

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IFebruary 4, 2022

A protester in California demonstrates opposition to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
A protester in California demonstrates opposition to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every two years, the Olympics get harder to watch. This year is no different.

Even if you normally keep your head in the sand when it comes to international affairs, allegations of human rights violations committed by the Chinese government have been impossible to ignore in the leadup to the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Repression of the peoples of Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan, along with suppression of freedom of speech and protest among Chinese citizens, gained renewed attention as China prepared to take center stage in the sporting world. 

Tensions ramped up in November when tennis player Peng Shuai said a former government official sexually assaulted her and then disappeared from the public eye, prompting concern over her well-being. And let's not forget that these Olympics are again being held during a pandemic. Last month, Chinese authorities quarantined the 13 million residents of Xi'an in their homes with limited resources in an attempt to contain a COVID-19 outbreak under the country's zero-COVID policy.

But the biggest controversy leading up to these Olympics concerns the massive human rights crisis taking place in the Xinjiang region. As many as 2 million members of the Uyghur people and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups are being held in internment camps there, according to the U.S. State Department, which calls the treatment of the Uyghur people "genocide" and "crimes against humanity." Former detainees allege that the prisoners face torture, forced sterilization and more in an effort to wipe out their culture. Chinese officials have denied the allegations, branding the camps as "re-education camps."

Now, as athletes from around the world gather in a display of international friendship and competition, these issues call into question how much those in power are willing to tolerate for the sake of a sporting event. As President Xi Jinping uses the world's biggest sporting event to veil his government's alleged atrocities, is there anything we lowly viewers can do but sit and watch?

Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Chinese President Xi Jinping.Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Unfortunately, we can't count on those with political or monetary power to take a stand. Companies like Visa and Procter & Gamble are holding back on their Olympics-related advertising, but they're not pulling their sponsorships despite pleas from over 200 groups around the world as they strike the delicate balance of appeasing both the American public and the Chinese markets. The U.S.'s diplomatic boycott, along with those of Lithuania, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, feels like an empty gesture. And when questioned about the issues at hand, International Olympic Committee officials won't take a stand, often citing the "political neutrality" outlined in the Olympic Charter.

What's more, by awarding the Olympics to Beijing for the second time since 2008, the IOC enables, and indeed condones, the actions of what Human Rights Watch calls an "authoritarian state" that "systemically curbs fundamental rights." 

"The IOC deserves all of the disdain and disgust that comes their way for going back to China yet again," said Bob Costas, the former NBC commentator who hosted 12 Olympic Games, on CNN last month, adding: "They're shameless about this stuff."

Part of the IOC's lack of response comes from its unwillingness to upset one of the few countries that is willing to host an Olympics anymore. The cutthroat bidding wars that decided who would host the Games in decades past are all but nonexistent. A study published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs cites the "spiraling costs" associated with the Olympics, along with the likelihood that hosting the Games doesn't have a positive economic impact. Instead, we get dead venues that become the stuff of depressing slideshows

The Olympic Village in Athens 10 years after the city hosted the Summer Olympics.
The Olympic Village in Athens 10 years after the city hosted the Summer Olympics.Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

The IOC's desperation—along with, of course, the monetary value of its premier sporting event—means it's willing to overlook Russia's oppression of gay rights, Japan going ahead with the 2020 Olympics despite a lack of public support and Brazil's displacement of unhoused people in the leadup to the 2016 Olympics. Now, it means ignoring what many consider to be genocide by the Chinese government.

The IOC's decision isn't victimless. Hosting big events like the Olympics is an effective tool for "sportswashing," or using sporting events or teams to distract from political issues like human rights abuses. Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, warned that those associated with the Olympics should "question whether these Games are legitimizing and prolonging grave abuses." Indeed, Xi stated that he hopes the Games will "show a good image of our country and demonstrate our nation's commitment to building a community with a shared future for mankind." In 2008, then vice president and in charge of preparations for the Games, he called a safe Olympics "the most important symbol of the country's international image." 

Regardless of where the Olympics are held, they have negative consequences on the communities that are supposed to reap the rewards. Citizens are displaced, public funds are misspent and overspent, and cities are militarized for the sake of a spectacle that is meant to represent a nation's greatness.

A Tibetan protester marching in Lausanne, Switzerland.
A Tibetan protester marching in Lausanne, Switzerland.VALENTIN FLAURAUD/Getty Images

Potential solutions exist for these problems, like hosting the Games in the same city each time or having a few cities rotate the responsibility. Alternatively, the format could change entirely. It could be time to question the things we take for granted each Olympic cycle, like why all these events have to happen in the same place.

But change will only come if the risks of hosting—or, in the case of the IOC, organizing—the Olympics start to dramatically outweigh the rewards that come with sportswashing. The Olympics will only change if we change how we think about the Olympics. One potential outcome of Beijing 2022 is that media coverage of the alleged genocide will make the public see the Games as a gaudy display of nationalism used by governments to cover up injustices (call it an Olympic rebranding). When Americans see the opening ceremony in Los Angeles in 2028, it may evoke disgust over what it took to get there, rather than national pride. And maybe someday everyone will be able to enjoy the world's biggest sporting event without pangs of guilt.

For a brand as well protected as the Olympics, it's probably too much to ask. But a girl can dream.