When the Winter Olympics officially begin Friday in Beijing, U.S. diplomats and international fans won’t be the only ones missing from the festivities. Olympic athletes from multiple countries who want to show solidarity with the victims of the Chinese government’s human rights abuses have been quietly preparing to boycott the Opening Ceremonies, according to human rights activists who have been helping to educate and organize them.
For several months, U.S.-based activists have been meeting with Olympic athletes from several Western countries to urge them to speak out on the Chinese government’s mass atrocities and severe repression of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and other groups inside China. The athletes, facing the threat of punishment from the Chinese government if they talk about human rights, have almost all avoided addressing the subject in public.
The athletes have also come under pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its sponsors to avoid controversy. But if they don’t feel safe speaking out, the activists told them, skipping the Opening and Closing Ceremonies would at least deny the Chinese government the ability to use those ceremonies to legitimize its abuses and whitewash its crimes. Activists told me that athletes from at least two Western teams confirmed they will not be attending the Opening Ceremonies as their personal form of protest.
“The simple gesture of skipping out on the Opening Ceremonies can be a tremendous opportunity for athletes to show solidarity and compassion towards the Uyghur, Tibetan, Hong Konger and Mongolian communities that have suffered unimaginable human rights violations by the hands of China’s Communist Party,” Dorjee Tseten, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), told me. “Athletes, you have a voice, your gesture of solidarity can make a difference.”
SFT has organized groups of Tibetans, Uyghurs and Hong Kongers to travel in recent months to Olympic qualifying events and other athletic competitions where they could meet with athletes and plead their case. Their original ask was for a full boycott of the Beijing Olympics, but as the bare minimum they asked athletes to boycott the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
The exact number of athletes planning to boycott the Opening Ceremonies is unknown. Activists told me several athletes expressed fear of being arrested by Chinese authorities or being punished by their home nation’s Olympics organization if they protested at all. Some athletes told the activists they would explain why they skipped the Opening Ceremonies only after the games ended, remaining silent while in China to avoid punishment.
In addition for asking for support, the activists also wanted athletes to understand how they might be used for propaganda purposes by the Chinese government. A briefing document for athletes issued by the activist groups warns that, in addition to maintaining vigilance on digital spying, athletes should also be careful not to take pictures with Chinese officials who might be connected to human rights abuses and to avoid posing in front of slogans they can’t read. Athletes shouldn’t let the IOC stop them from exerting their right to free speech at the Games, the activists wrote.
“The success of Chinese propaganda at Beijing 2022 rests on athletes’, fans’ and broadcasters’ willingness to treat these games as business as usual,” Dorjee said.
There’s some evidence that Chinese authorities and the IOC are concerned that athletes might not attend the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. After Taiwan’s delegation said last week they wouldn’t attend either event, the IOC sent Taiwan’s Olympic committee “several notices … requiring all delegations to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics to cooperate in sending personnel to attend the opening and closing ceremonies.” Also this week, Chinese authorities have been spreading propaganda claiming the U.S. government is paying athletes to “disrupt” the games, while cracking down on local Chinese dissidents with impunity.
In the United States, lawmakers in both parties are concerned that the IOC is not doing enough to protect U.S. athletes inside China. Also, the research group Citizen Lab reported that the “health monitoring” app all Olympics participants in Beijing were required to download was riddled with security vulnerabilities that may put users’ privacy at risk.
The State Department has repeatedly briefed U.S. athletes about safety and security issues in China and will provide security services to all U.S. citizens at the Games, a State Department spokesperson told me. The Diplomatic Security Service has a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Olympic Committee in place to facilitate cooperation in case any U.S. citizen is detained or harassed at the Games.
U.S. Olympic athletes have a long tradition of using their platforms to speak out against host governments or their own government at the Olympics. In 1936, Jesse Owens spoke out against Nazism before winning four gold medals in Berlin. In Mexico City in 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist on the medals podium. Smith later said it was a “human rights salute.”
In 2022, the Olympics is being held in a country credibly accused of perpetrating an ongoing genocide. Any athletes protesting those abuses, even if only by staying away from the Opening Ceremonies, are standing up for human rights everywhere. They deserve our admiration, protection and support.