Expert insight: Beijing, boycotts and the battle for human rights

International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland (Photo source: IOC/Greg Martin)

With the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games about to begin, there are many debates occurring in the media and in academic literature on the most controversial topics the Olympic movement has ever faced.

Make no mistake, there has always been some kind of crisis debated in the media leading up to an Olympic Games - doping, terrorism, Zika virus, human rights, to name a few. For this 2022 Winter Olympic Games there are at least two primary themes: Why weren’t the Olympic Games postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic like the Tokyo Olympics was? And why isn’t the world boycotting the Beijing Olympic Games due to human rights violations by China?

The athletes’ perspective on these matters is critical - "nothing about us without us."

Pandemic pressure

In regard to the first question, we see COVID-19 Omicron cases on the rise with lockdowns in Xiong’an in China, and athletes testing positive, including some Canadian athletes, as they arrive to prepare to compete in the Winter Olympics. China has implemented what it has called a ’zero-COVID’ strategy, which includes much more rigorous restriction than even those implemented by Japan for the Tokyo Games last summer.

Some athletes, like the Norwegian Nordic skiers, and sport federation leaders, including ski association presidents, claim the Winter Olympics should have been postponed by a year as they grapple to deal with positive COVID-19 tests by some of the best medal contenders who are then forced into isolation in China. They don’t know if they will be able to compete as they hope to recover in time.

The anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic have contributed to significant psychological distress. After dealing with uncertainty from cancelled qualifying competitions, financial strain, limited and changing access to facilities, these athletes were already under duress. The combination of social isolation and anxiety has led to feelings of withdrawal and depression in many athletes, based on initial findings from a research project led by the International Centre for Olympic Studies and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Unsurprisingly, during the pandemic, athlete support staff have reported increased demands for online counselling and increased diagnoses of psychological disorders among athletes, citing "significant grief, stress, anxiety and sadness" in athletes. Each athlete responds and prepares differently, and that response is determined mostly by each individual’s resilience and coping methods. But there is no doubt that these athletes have gone to tremendous lengths to get a chance to compete at the Olympics and most athletes only make it to one Olympic Games.

So, as we get ready to watch and cheer for our athletes that manage to make it to the competition day in these Winter Games, we should try to be aware of the extraordinary circumstances most of these athletes have had to endure.

Athletes’ voice

The other question at play in the Beijing Olympics is, given the extreme concerns about human rights abuses, why haven’t there been more and greater boycotts of these Olympic Games? Very few people question that action needs to be taken regarding these human rights abuses, but there is much debate about the best way to do it.

Our own government decided that a diplomatic boycott was preferable than using and punishing our own athletes, ignoring their voices and choices, by trying to prevent them from competing. Critics argue that a diplomatic boycott is useless as it only means that officials will stay home. Defenders reply that the international calls for diplomatic boycotts have decreased the reputation of the Beijing Games and helped to increase media coverage of demonstrations over human rights abuses.

Further, the absence of government officials and world leaders may have larger implications than some would believe. One reason they attend in the first place is for international networking with powerful people, as more heads of state attend Olympic Games than many other major events for that purpose. There will be missed opportunities in this regard, and due to the pandemic and other global tensions, there has already been limited face-to-face diplomacy.

Many supporters of the Olympic movement have argued that boycotting, moving or cancelling the Beijing Olympics "runs counter to the very purpose and history of the Olympic movement and places athletes in an untenable position" (Bruce Kidd, former dean of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto). The athletes’ voices have also been part of the discussion, as freedom of speech and freedom to choose are also human rights.

Some argue it is contradictory to coerce athletes to prevent them from going to the Olympic Games, as we did in Canada in 1980, because it is an example of using human rights suppression to fight for human rights through enforced boycotts. Many athletes who were forced to boycott in 1980 still express profound disappointment from having had to pay the price of their Olympic dream for something that made no difference to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan.

As the athletes increasingly express themselves, they are also being held more accountable for that. Chinese Olympic champion Yang Yang has warned that "...athletes need to be responsible for what they say.... There are very strict rules in the Charter." Many human rights activists interpret this kind of messaging from China as an attempt to suppress criticism. The media have also reported they are being controlled in an extreme manner that they have never experienced before at an Olympic Games, and some have boycotted in protest. We can only hope that, after all these, the media and the athletes could still work together when they return to their countries to fight for what they believe is the good fight for human rights.

The athletes competing in Beijing did not select it as a host city, but they were being asked to pay the price for that selection. In fact, many athletes’ groups, including Global Athlete, started by Canadian Olympian Becky Scott, have argued for much stronger athlete involvement in this whole process. They are demanding more accountability and changes from the International Olympic Committee. After all, athletes should not have to choose between their moral beliefs and being allowed to compete.

Angela Schneider is a professor at Western’s School of Kinesiology and the director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies. She is a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in coxed four rowing.