The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Olympic leaders need to learn: Inaction isn’t neutral. It’s abdication.

IOC President Thomas Bach leaves the podium after a news conference Friday. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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BEIJING — The Olympics stayed out of it. Like a good little Games, they kept their long-held neutrality promise or at least the illusion of it, leaving fires to burn in every direction.

The International Olympic Committee stayed out of China’s politics. It empowered a country accused of rampant human rights abuses with the cushiest home-turf advantage: the platform to say and do as it pleased.

In a warped sense of fairness, the Court of Arbitration for Sport thought it was doing Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva a favor by letting her compete even though she tested positive in December for a banned substance. It ended up conceiving a scenario that would destroy the 15-year-old and sicken an international audience.

To be an honest depiction of the defining themes, the Beijing Winter Olympics should have held the Closing Ceremonies in silence as the Chinese government gloated and Russia feigned annoyance while hiding satisfaction that it is allowed to manipulate an unsatisfactory and confusing anti-doping system.

That’s Olympic neutrality for you. It generates an inadvertent apathy easy to exploit. Conflate passivity and unity, and all the forced policies to manufacture evenness embolden countries accused of wrongdoing to live their best, unchallenged lives. Nothing incubates bad behavior better than the unconscious good behavior of people invested in creating a facade of togetherness.

Olympic governance is not apolitical. It is recklessly illogical.

It is not protecting athletes and competitive integrity in adherence to the convoluted standards of the World Anti-Doping Agency. It is doing the kind of damage it supposedly seeks to minimize.

You cannot unify children in a playground, let alone an entire world, without demanding a firm agreement on values. Before and during the Beijing Games, the IOC wore a hole in Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which restricts athlete expression. It did the same last summer in Tokyo, fearful that this era of sports activism would spread and force viewers to consider being better humans.

The participants mostly resisted making social and political statements. The IOC exhaled. Injustice remained out of the spotlight. The Olympics brought everyone together, and the distraction provided cover for the vile.

It took Gus Kenworthy, an outspoken and openly gay freestyle skier, to say something. Kenworthy is retiring. He competed in three Olympics and won a slopestyle silver medal in 2014. He could speak frankly because he’s exiting the farce. As part of his farewell, he called out the IOC for its “greed” and for not having its “heart in the right place.”

“It was never that I thought China couldn’t put on a good Games,” Kenworthy told reporters after his final performance. “I absolutely knew that they could, and they have. But when there are human rights atrocities happening in the country and a poor stance on LGBTQ rights, then those things need to be taken into consideration by the IOC.”

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It’s fraudulent to market an Olympic spirit based on peace, drain billions of dollars from nations eager to attach themselves to it and then act above almost all issues related to justice. Of course, the Olympics aren’t powerful enough to establish a worldwide standard, even though the IOC flaunts such self-importance when convenient. But what good is the endeavor if its leaders refuse to set an example?

The Games are built on the notion of an idyllic society. Sports diplomacy should be an effort, not an excuse to construct a luxurious fort. Decisions must be made to reinforce the mission. Failure to do so does not prove impartiality. The inaction is the most telling action of all.

Olympic neutrality neutralizes common sense. It neutralizes values. It neutralizes decency.

A lot of bad happened here as the IOC was busy doing nothing. It coddled China, and the host avoided scrutiny and fashioned the attention into propaganda. As the first city to entertain a Summer and Winter Olympics — all within the past 14 years — Beijing put on a show that the president of its organizing committee considered “fantastic, extraordinary and excellent.”

“We have done our utmost to promote the Olympic spirit,” Cai Qi said.

It did admirable work under difficult pandemic conditions. It also saw a spokeswoman, Yan Jiarong, take over a news conference a few days ago, answering political questions not directed at her. Yan dismissed stories about what she termed the “so-called forced labor” of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang on two occasions.

She also turned a question about Taiwan into a rant. Taiwan, a self-governing island that China does not consider independent, is known as Chinese Taipei at the Olympics.

“We have to take a solemn position,” Yan said. “What I want to say, there is only one China in the world.”

Then she threw in a hypocritical kicker: “We are always against the idea of politicizing the Olympic Games.”

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Later, IOC President Thomas Bach offered something of a criticism, saying his organization addressed the issue with the Beijing committee and declaring that her remarks “seemed to violate Olympic rules about political neutrality.” Because Bach had been so careful in guarding the relationship with China, his words were viewed as strong. At the Olympics, everything is weighted improperly.

Yan did not attend the final media session. It was characterized as simply an alternation of spokespeople. Yan and Zhao Weidong had split media event duties over the past three weeks, but both attended the kickoff. With six organizers available to talk Sunday, her absence was noticeable but also easy to dismiss. By the end, China had outlasted visitor suspicion.

“We have staged an Olympic Games that will go down in history,” Zhao said.

The IOC won’t dispute the claim. Believe or disbelieve away. The Olympics are neutral, after all.