Updated Feb 1, 2022 - World

The IOC stays silent on human rights in China

Illustration of barbed wire in the shape of the IOC logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The International Olympic Committee is publicly backing China, where the Winter Games are being held this year and where there is an ongoing genocide.

The big picture: The IOC has long stated it is committed to human rights, but it is declining to take a stand ahead of the Beijing Olympics — and insisting its only mission is to run the Games successfully.

  • By remaining silent and continuing to back Beijing, the IOC is deflecting pressure from the international community onto Olympics sponsors and athletes themselves.

Driving the news: Numerous governments have announced a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, due to the campaign of repression and genocide that Chinese authorities are currently waging against ethnic Uyghurs in the country's northwest region.

  • This means no official government delegation from these countries will travel to Beijing, but their athletes will still compete.

What's happening: Despite growing criticism, the IOC has not denounced the Chinese government's policies in Xinjiang or raised the topic publicly. It has cut off talks with human rights groups asking for answers about the possibility of forced Uyghur labor in Olympic uniform supply chains.

  • IOC president Thomas Bach publicly met in Beijing last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a key architect of the Xinjiang genocide.
  • The IOC said in a statement that the "two leaders discussed the strong support of the international community for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022."

The IOC's mission is to "build a peaceful and better world," and the organization preaches political neutrality. But it plays politics when it wants to, banning South Africa in 1964 due to apartheid and cracking down on social justice protests.

What they're saying: "Our responsibility is to run the Games in accordance with the Olympic Charter ... and to bring together the athletes from 206 teams and the IOC refugee team under one roof," Bach said in December, when asked about China's human rights violations in Xinjiang.

  • "The sporting sanctions against South Africa came in the wake of broad agreement within the international community on taking a wide range of political measures against the South African government, backed by the United Nations," an IOC spokesperson told Axios, in response to questions about China and the Uyghur genocide.
  • "The IOC cannot take such a position unilaterally when most actors of the international community continue to have diplomatic, political, cultural or economic exchanges with a particular country."

The refusal of the IOC and its top executives to publicly denounce or acknowledge the existence of a genocide in China is due in part to the Olympics' growing reliance on the pocketbooks of authoritarian governments in particular.

  • Hosting the Games has become prohibitively expensive over the years, including building (and then maintaining) Olympic-sized facilities.
  • "In the bidding race for the Winter Games in 2022, all eight potential hosts from democratic countries terminated their bidding efforts before the IOC's final vote, which left two cities from authoritarian states as potential hosts," sociologist Thomas Könecke and Michiel de Nooij wrote in a 2017 study published in the journal Current Issues in Sports Science.
  • "Keeping good working relations with authoritarian governments helps the IOC to secure the future of its main revenue driver, the Olympic Games, thus providing for its own future," they wrote.

Uyghur activists are upset that the IOC has continued to allow the Chinese government to hold such a prestigious event.

  • Nazi Germany used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a propaganda opportunity to showcase its strength and success, Nury Turkel, attorney and senior fellow at Hudson Institute, notes.
  • "By refusing to relocate the Olympics, the IOC has condoned the Uyghur genocide by allowing the Games to take place in the shadow of concentration camps once again," Turkel told Axios.

Between the lines: The calls for boycotts, for sponsors to cut ties, and for NBC to include human rights coverage, have put Olympians in a difficult spot, leaving some athletes unnerved and upset.

  • In an era of athlete empowerment, the Beijing Games are just the opposite. Athletes have been thrust into a geopolitical affair, been given burner phones and warned they may face punishment for speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party.
  • "I understand people want us and our backers to speak out about the host city decision," Elana Meyers Taylor, an American bobsledder, wrote in USA Today.
  • "But sponsors and athletes didn't choose Beijing."

The bottom line: "O Sport, you are peace!" Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, wrote in his 1912 poem, Ode to Sport.

  • A century later, the host of the Games is committing genocide against its own people.

Editor’s note: This post was updated to add comments from the International Olympic Committee.

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