It was a relatively simple question. During senate estimates in early June, Eric Abetz asked whether the United States had made any representations to Australia about a potential diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, due to be held in Beijing in February. “And if so, what is our response to that?” queried the Tasmanian senator, before editorialising: “I would fully support such a boycott.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s muddled response spoke volumes about what has emerged as a foreign policy headache for Australia and a moral dilemma for athletes and sporting organisations around the world. “Senator, my understanding is that is not the case,” she said. “There were reports of such a matter, but I understand that is not the approach of the [Biden] administration.” Abetz retorted: “That is a great pity if it is not.” After Labor’s Penny Wong joined the fray, Payne ultimately demurred: “I’d like to check that, so senator let me take that on notice.”
Payne and Australia’s Olympians do not have long to think. In seven months’ time, the Winter Olympics will begin and the growing chorus of objections to China hosting a major international sporting event will reach its crescendo. Ever since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the Games to Beijing in 2015, human rights organisations have criticised China’s “sportswashing” of its reputation. Following the dramatic decline in democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, systematic repression of ethnic minorities and aggression towards foreign critics, including Australia, those calls have only grown louder.
“It is hard to imagine why anybody would want to give legitimacy to a government that we think is committing crimes against humanity,” says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association (WPA), the global umbrella body for athlete unions, harbours similar concerns. “The situation in China is very confronting from a human rights perspective,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “We are getting to a stage where the sports movement, including the IOC, have to seriously consider the appropriateness of hosting this event [in Beijing].”
Human Rights Watch has repeatedly raised its concerns with the IOC. “Talking to the IOC about these matters is a little bit like talking to a toddler having a tantrum,” Richardson says. “They stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘sports aren’t political, the Olympics are a force for good’. It is an extraordinary conversation to be a part of – when someone who is sitting across the table from you insists this exercise is a force for good, when we are talking about a government committing some of the most serious human rights crimes in existence.”
While the IOC has added human rights principles to its host city contract, these will only take effect from 2024 onward. “The IOC’s ability to uphold principled human rights commitment leaves everything to be desired,” says Richardson. “They seem keen to do it in places where it is easy, and wholly unwilling in places where it is hard.” The 2024 Olympics are being held in Paris – France, unlike China, is not known for its flagrant human rights abuses.
Arguments about the intersection of sport and politics are not novel. Ahead of the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi Germany, the president of the United States Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, insisted that “politics has no place in sport” and dismissed those calling for a boycott as “un-American agitators”. History, of course, has not been kind to those who aided Hitler’s propaganda exercise.
Similar debates arose when China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, a country that subsequently invaded Ukraine.
The current dilemma, in the absence of any leadership from the IOC, is what athletes, sporting organisations and governments might do about Beijing 2022. There have been a number of calls, including from HRW and senior American politician Nancy Pelosi, for a diplomatic boycott – where athletes still compete but nations do not send political representatives. The more drastic alternative, a sporting boycott, would have major implications for athletes. In 2018, Australia sent 50 Olympians to the Winter Games, and garnered three medals.
“It is not the athletes’ fault that the Chinese government is committing human rights violations, or that the IOC is such an incredibly poor judge of where to hold the Games,” admits Richardson. “It is problematic to punish the athletes over something that is not in their control.”
Independent MP Zali Steggall, an Olympic bronze medallist in alpine skiing, is wary of a boycott. “I don’t believe that we should be pushing athletes into a position having to decide about participation in the Olympics,” she says. “I am highly aware of China’s human rights record – [including] what are some very serious and concerning allegations – but I think we have a lot of other levers before we have to talk boycotts or consequences for athletes.”
The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) opposes a sporting boycott and says it is not aware of any Australian athlete contemplating a boycott. “Human rights are a given and non-discrimination is embedded in the Olympic charter, but sporting boycotts don’t work and they are unfair on athletes,” says an AOC spokesperson. “Governments have many avenues they can pursue – unilateral decisions, bilateral talks or diplomatic sanctions if they wish. Why punish athletes? We trade with China, China is a member of the United Nations and the G20 but one sporting event is being singled out. History tells us a Beijing boycott will achieve nothing – in fact, it will make things worse.”
Sport Minister Richard Colbeck told The Saturday Paper “the Australian government is not considering a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics. Arrangements for the attendance of Australian government representatives at the Beijing Games has not been finalised but will be considered in due course.”
The official stance of the Biden administration is that they are still consulting allies on a united approach to China’s human rights record in the context of the Games. In April, the US State Department suggested a diplomatic boycott was being considered, but later said a boycott had not been discussed. If the US ultimately proceeds with a diplomatic boycott, Australia will be dragged into the controversy one way or another.
Whatever happens at a political level, it seems almost certain Australia will send a small delegation of athletes to Beijing in February. At the Games, they will be confronted by the IOC’s ongoing attempts to mute political protest. Rule 50 of the IOC charter provides that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. In April, the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission affirmed its support for the continued application of rule 50, following a survey of more than 3500 athletes.
“The IOC is playing a very dangerous double game,” says the WPA’s Schwab. “They are engaging quite openly with a regime that is sportswashing and at the same time trying to silence athletes from speaking out and engaging in political protest – peaceful political protest – which is of course a fundamental human right.
“Unfortunately, the IOC Athletes’ Commission has turned human rights into a popularity contest – by surveying athletes in a very questionable way as to whether they think peaceful protest, such as on the podium or in the field of play, is ‘appropriate’,” says Schwab. “That is simply not a relevant question. Athletes have a right to engage in peaceful political protest and the IOC has a responsibility to respect that right under international human rights standards.”
HRW’s Richardson is similarly critical. “We take issue with rule 50,” she says. “We obviously believe that people have a legal right worldwide to freedom of expression, as long as it is done peacefully. What happens if someone wants to wear a Uygur Lives Matter T-shirt [at the Winter Olympics]?”
Against the backdrop of China’s human rights violations, the recommendations of the IOC Athletes’ Commission make for farcical reading. To “increase opportunities for athletes’ expression during the Olympic Games”, the commission has called for opening and closing ceremonies to “highlight the importance of solidarity, unity and non-discrimination”. Messages celebrating “peace, respect, solidarity, inclusion and equality”, the commission says, should be added to the Olympic village.
In April, a Human Rights Watch report determined that China’s treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang constituted crimes against humanity. As many as a million Uygur people have been arbitrarily imprisoned. Other groups have labelled China’s actions genocide. But come February, the IOC will hold its second-largest international event in Beijing and call for non-discrimination at the opening ceremony.
Schwab says if an athlete is sanctioned for protesting during the 2022 Games, the World Players Association will offer its full support. “They have to back their conscience,” the lawyer says. Richardson cites the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, where South Africa’s policy of apartheid turned the rugby union fixtures into a political flashpoint. “One thinks of some of the extraordinary activism by and around sporting events,” she says. “All of those rights are open to athletes. It is up to them to decide how to pursue it.”
On Friday, July 2, in the face of criticism of rule 50 and ongoing athlete activism, the IOC released new guidance emphasising that athletes at the forthcoming Summer Olympics “have the opportunity to express their views” in press conferences, interviews and on the field of play prior to competition.
How athletes make use of this “opportunity” in Tokyo in the weeks ahead will be an interesting prelude to what is shaping up as the most politically controversial Olympic Games in decades.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 10, 2021 as "Winter discontent".
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