China’s human rights violations raise ‘unprecedented’ conflict for Olympic movement, scholar says

Prof. John MacAloon: Threats to athlete speech at 2022 Beijing Olympics unlike any previous Games

Prof. John MacAloon has studied the Olympics for decades, but the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing are unlike any other Games he’s witnessed or researched.

Several countries have enacted diplomatic boycotts over concerns about China’s human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang province. At the same time, the Chinese government has threatened to punish athletes who speak in ways that it deems offensive.

This has led to what MacAloon calls an “unprecedented” situation: That the Olympics might occur even as the host country attempts to censor athlete speech against its ongoing human rights abuses.

The International Olympic Committee itself, meanwhile, has not spoken out.

“If the IOC simply ignores what’s happening in Xinjiang, then for many people, while it does its duty in providing a Games for the athletes, the IOC is effectively resigning from leadership of the Olympic movement, a social movement enshrining common humanity, human dignity, and human rights,” said MacAloon, a professor in the Social Sciences Graduate Division at the University of Chicago.

An anthropologist and historian who studies the Olympics from the standpoint of international relations, intercultural diplomacy, and human rights, MacAloon has written three books on the Olympics. Though this year’s Games are unique, he said, they also underscore the fact that the Olympics have always functioned as a crucial venue for focusing the world’s attention on geopolitical and human rights issues.

For viewers, they present an ethical conundrum: Can we engage with and appreciate the competition, while remaining cognizant of the human rights violations happening in China? In these conditions, can sports still serve as a means to improve the human condition—the original mission of the Olympics?

China has threatened to punish athletes for any kind of demonstration. What makes that so concerning?

The Beijing 2022 Olympic Games have confronted the international Olympic movement with an unprecedented conflict between the hosting of the Games and the current human rights circumstances in the host country. Consequently, the whole global system is going to be engaged in what happens in Beijing over the next three weeks.

The IOC’s “Rule 50”—introduced into the Olympic Charter in 1975—prohibits political “demonstration” and “propaganda,” including protests on both political issues and social issues in certain contexts: during the competition itself, on the field of play, on the victory stand or during opening ceremonies, etc. But it’s quite explicit in saying athletes have free speech in all other contexts, for example, when talking to journalists or on their own social media.

The Chinese government has not settled for this. It upped the ante in the second week of January, when the deputy director of the organizing committee, a high CCP official, explicitly threatened the world’s athletes in Beijing, saying that if they act, protest or speak in a way that is offensive to Chinese law and the Chinese government, there will be “certain punishment.”

In other words, if state authorities decide that athletes have broken Chinese law, they will act accordingly. This threat has clearly had an impact on athletes who might otherwise be inclined to speak out against the genocide and other human rights issues in China. They may fear not being protected by the usual diplomatic status of Olympic athletes. They may very well be arrested and prosecuted by Chinese authorities, regardless of what the IOC or other sports authorities might say or do.

Nothing like this has ever taken place before. It’s completely unprecedented in my 50 years of ethnography as an anthropologist of the Olympic Games, or in my historical research. But it shows that the Chinese government is clearly afraid of such actions by athletes.

Have past boycotts successfully brought about change?

Boycotts should be thought about in the larger context of political education, political protests and human rights law. The Olympics have been exceedingly influential in the past, and certain boycotts have had a real impact. Not necessarily the U.S.-led boycott of Moscow in 1980, and Soviet-led boycott of Los Angeles in 1984—but others, like the African boycott of Montreal in 1976, which proved very effective in solidifying the fight against apartheid in South Africa, both in the sports community and among other international entities, including the UN.

Once that boycott took place, there was no more ambivalence on the part of the IOC and other international sports organizations about declaring apartheid a crime against humanity, and therefore, not a matter solely of domestic political policy. South Africa was banned by the international sports community, an important step in the larger anti-apartheid struggle, as Nelson Mandela himself made abundantly clear.

In other cases, boycotts and other protest actions have proved more effective for publicizing and standing up for a group’s convictions rather than for inducing any change in others. Regarding Beijing, diplomatic boycotts have been announced by several countries, which essentially means sending no government officials to the host nation. But no full-scale athlete boycotts will take place. The Chinese government has still reacted sharply.

Why has the IOC hesitated to make a statement?

Part of the reason the IOC has been placed in a difficult position is because few countries offered to host the 2022 Winter Games. The final choices were Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. The choice of Beijing as host was made in 2015, when China was seen as a safe choice and before the human rights abuses in Xinjiang and persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking ethnic minorities were fully underway and widely recognized. Now, the international community’s attention is strongly focused on the situation there.

President Xi Jinping will perform the ritual function of declaring the Games open, and he is, in effect, the proud sponsor of both the policies in Xinjiang and these Olympics. So, the claims by the IOC that the Chinese state and its policies are not directly connected with the Olympics are really self-serving and false.

For many observers, the IOC’s silence directly conflicts with the IOC’s Olympic Charter itself, which frames the Olympics in the context of human dignity, social responsibility and ethical principles. And it certainly goes against the IOC’s own history, in which it banned South Africa by declaring that apartheid is a crime against humanity, not mere internal state policy. In that way, it was able to take direct action against South Africa while holding on to its rhetoric of separation of sports and politics.

How is genocide not a “crime against humanity”? Today, the IOC is violating its own proud tradition by claiming to be “politically neutral” in Beijing. If it persists throughout these Games in ignoring the Uyghur genocide, then the IOC will demonstrate conclusively, in my view, that its commitment lies with protecting the Olympic sports industry brand, and not with leadership of the Olympic movement as a movement for peace, human dignity and human rights.

Is there a way for fans watching from home to ethically enjoy the Olympics? What should we remain cognizant of if we do watch them over the next few weeks?

That’s a wonderful question, and a subject of debate in the seminar I’m teaching this quarter. We’ll see just how much these games will raise awareness for average American viewers. NBC, the rights-holding U.S. broadcaster, has insisted that it will not shy away from covering human rights issues in China, but it will likely do that during its news and feature programming, not during the sports programming.

If an athlete protests and is arrested, punished or deported, that will surely draw very wide media coverage. But otherwise, will viewers take the initiative to keep themselves geopolitically informed if their primary interest is in sports?

The question of how we relate ethically to the Games goes beyond the viewing audience and forces us to think about the athletes. Do we punish athletes by condemning or ignoring their competitions because of a situation that they didn’t create? The athletes are not the reason the IOC locked itself into this circumstance, but they remain the vehicle of the whole undertaking. There wouldn’t be an Olympic movement without the athletes.

But it might also be a little unfair to expect athletes to be the ones who stand up for human rights in the middle of what are extremely trying circumstances, both due to the pandemic and threats from the host country. So, solidarity with the situation of athletes I think is an ethical stance here regardless of your position.

A central claim of the Olympic ritual system is that nationality and one’s sense of common humanity need not be in conflict. So how will all this sit with people who are aware that more than a million Chinese citizens are in concentration camps for no other reason than their ethnicity and religion? That is the dramatic question being asked by these performances.

The same questions are relevant to the Chinese public, but remember that average Chinese citizens may not be particularly aware of the international controversy over these Games—or even of the government’s Xinjiang policy—due to Chinese state media’s powerful control over the national narratives.

What else do you think is important to consider as the 2022 Games begin?

The Olympic Games have always sparked controversies, although not always on this scale. When they were hosted in Berlin in 1936, Hitler and the Nazis had only recently come to power, after the awarding of host status by the IOC to the Weimar Republic. Still today, there’s a tension in different American communities about the heritage of those games. Should we have boycotted them, given what were then early indications of the atrocities that would follow? Or is it better that there wasn’t a boycott, so that Jesse Owens, Ralph Metcalfe and other outstanding Black American athletes could deliver a symbolic message to Hitler, and to the world, as our national legends so often proclaim?

Today’s situation is different. For years now, there has been widespread awareness of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. The mere fact we’re having this conversation suggests that Olympic sport raises these human rights issues—these issues of global humanity—in a way that other things might not. There’s clearly something about the Olympic Games that makes the discourse of human rights highly pertinent and attention-getting, as the intense engagement of the major human rights NGOs with Beijing 2022 makes perfectly clear.

In the mid- and late-20th century, the U.S. faced criticism as a host nation because of racial segregation and inequality. How can an Olympic host nation be a nation of racial suppression? These questions remain as relevant and powerful today as ever.