The American athletes who may wind up coming in Beijing in the 2022 Winter Olympics in February will undoubtedly feel the pressure of competition. They’ll have help to deal with it.
The United States Olympic Committee has declared that therapists and mental health officers will be available to the athletes in Beijing, according to a Washington Post story. They’ll be crisis lines, online mental health chats and group therapy sessions.
They should need all of it. They’ll be competing in what human rights activists have called China’s “genocide games” — the horrific treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the northwest region of Xinjiang and the crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong.
The Chinese government — the one hosting these games — has put more than a million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities in prisons and detention centers.
At a press conference in Athens in October, Uyghur officials revealed how their Beijing brethren are not being afforded the same luxuries as crisis lines, online mental health chats and group therapy sessions.
“If this press conference was to take place in China, I, as an Uyghur, would end up in a camp and maybe be subjected to sexual abuse and torture, as millions of my fellow Uyghurs are,” said Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager for the World Uyghur Congress.
“The Olympic Games are being handed over to a country actively committing a genocide.”
You could make the case that this is not debatable — certainly not in China, where debate means you wind up in jail or worse.
United Nations human rights experts have said that at least 1 million Muslims were detained since 2017.
Chinese officials call the camps and detention centers vocational training facilities to combat religious extremism.
So how can the rest of the world come to Beijing and willingly take place in something so insignificant as “games” while this suppression of freedom blatantly exists? How can the rest of the world give the oppressive Chinese government validation by participating in an event that they will give them a chance to bask in the glory of their persecution of more than a million people with no price to pay?
International Olympic President Thomas Bach has said the Games must be “respected as politically neutral ground.”
You shouldn’t expect much from the IOC, which at times has resembled a criminal enterprise.
U.S. officials are reluctant to support a full boycott of the Games, which would be a repudiation of the Chinese suppression of human rights and a significant embarrassment to the oppressors. However, reports are that American officials are considering a “diplomatic” boycott of the Winter Games, which means that President Biden and other government officials won’t attend — basically turning down a party invitation. But the party will go on.
Olympics sponsors — especially those who do business in China with untold riches at stake — have shown no appetite for pulling out of these Games, despite calls from human rights activists.
Paul Lalli, Coca-Cola’s global vice president for human rights, told The Guardian last month, “We do not make decisions on these host locations. We support and follow the athletes wherever they compete.”
And there is the rub — there are no Olympics without athletes.
In their quest for mental health, crisis lines and group therapy sessions, will there be any questions put to these American athletes about the guilt they may feel about competing for their snowboarding or ice dancing medals while there are people in the host country who can’t enjoy their performances — unless they televise them in their prison camps?
My question in this is — why aren’t the athletes themselves ever asked how they can compete while there is such brutality going on and freedoms ignored?
It may be unfair, since no one else farther up the food chain is willing to have the strength to make the sacrifice for the greater good. After all, you could make the case it is the athletes who have sacrificed the most — years of their young lives, committed to the goal of winning an Olympic gold medal.
It is their dream. I get that. But it will happen in the shadow of more than a million people suffering from the nightmare of freedom denied by a government of thugs — who will watch these athletes march in a parade that celebrates the host nation as much as anyone.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently called the Olympics a “stage” for athletes all over the world. Zhao said, “they are the real protagonists. To politicize sports is against the Olympic spirit and harms the interests of athletes from all countries.”
The power, then, to make China pay a price for their human rights abuses really lies with the athletes themselves.
There is something called the IOC Athlete’s Commission, which I would assume could have a voice in uniting athletes to make this sacrifice as a statement of protest of human rights abuses committed by their Olympics hosts.
I wouldn’t expect much.
The commission chairperson, Emma Terho, was part of the orchestrated video presentation behind closed doors last week with missing tennis star Peng Shuai, who had accused a former Communist Party leader of sexual assault. Terho was part of a statement issued by the IOC that claimed Peng was “safe and well” but would “like her privacy to be respected at this time.”
The statement and video were dismissed by Women’s Tennis Association officials, who on Saturday issued a statement that the WTA “remains concerned about her (Shuai) ability to communicate freely, openly, and directly.”
American figure skater Evan Bates told USA Today in October that “human rights violations are abysmal. And we all believe that it’s really … it tears the fabric of humanity. But I think to boycott the Games would be to not take the opportunity to shed light on this topic.”
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• Thom Loverro can be reached at email@example.com.
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