In Peng case, critics see history of IOC treating hosts with kid gloves

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When olympics Organizers held a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai this week, with many activists and experts saying it was only a continuation of a decade-long trend in which the International Olympic Committee enabled and even encouraged authoritarian regimes. has done.

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Peng, a three-time Olympian and former doubles world number 1, was not seen for three weeks after sexual assault allegations were leveled against former deputy prime minister Zhang Gaoli, one of China’s most powerful officials.

The sport’s top stars and the Women’s Tennis Association have led a campaign calling for an investigation into Peng’s allegations. But the IOC has issued two statements in which it has tried to reassure the world that Peng is fine.


The committee held a video call with Peng last month, telling her she was “safe and well” and saying she had asked for confidentiality. On Thursday, the IOC said it spoke with Peng again and was offering “widespread support” – but did not release video of the call or mention the allegations.

IOC President Thomas Bach held a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai last month.Greg Martin / AFP – Getty Images

Kelly Curry, former US ambassador for global women’s issues, was one of many critics, disappointed that the IOC would be willing to accept that Peng was okay.

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“It was typical IOC: take the Chinese Communist Party at its word contrary to all the evidence,” said Curry, who also served as the US representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. It called the IOC’s response “voluntary and hypocritical” and accused it of “participating in a CCP propaganda damage-control effort”.

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He believes the IOC was too trusting of the assurances that have also been publicized by Chinese state media – and is very eager to please Beijing, the host of the Winter Olympics in less than three months.

Curry is also among many, including activists, experts, historians and other critics, who see the episode as the latest in a long list of examples where the IOC has accused human rights abusers of the world’s biggest sporting event. The event is allowed to run as soft. power tools.

It’s a decades-old pattern whose clearest and earliest example came in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, said Professor John Hoberman of the University of Texas at Austin, who has been in the Olympics since his 1986 book “The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics.” Researching ethics. , and moral order. ,

“In Beijing, the scenario of the Nazi Olympics is being repeated,” he said.

At that time, Germany was allowed to revel in the spectacle of its sports, although the world was well aware of Adolf Hitler’s anti-viral laws. Similarly, Hoberman said, China is hosting the Games despite allegations of cultural genocide against its Uyghur Muslim minority by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and others.

The Olympic flame is lit in Berlin in August 1936. It was guarded by members of the Hitler Youth before it was moved to the Olympic Stadium for the opening of the Games.

According to human rights groups and direct accounts, China has placed one million Uighurs and other minorities in detention camps, where some are subjected to forced labour, sterilization and torture. China denies this and says “re-education camps” are necessary to fight terrorism.

Hoberman said, “I can’t understand how someone with a conscience can watch the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 and not be haunted by the fact that a million people are being persecuted and subjected to cultural genocide.” He is going.”

The IOC denies that it has been too soft on China and other hosts. In a statement, it said it “must remain neutral on all global political issues” and takes no position on the “political structure, social conditions or human rights standards” of the host countries chosen by its members.

On Thursday, the IOC said it was using “quiet diplomacy” in the Peng case, which it said was “the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”

NBCUniversal, the parent company of Granthshala News, is the IOC’s biggest single source of income, paying $7.5 billion to expand US media rights through 2032.

Peng Shuai signed the big tennis balls at the opening ceremony of the FILA Kids Junior Tennis Challenger Finals in Beijing last month.@qingqingparis / via Reuters

Chinese officials and state media pointed to the IOC call as evidence that Peng was safe and free. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that he hoped it would mean “some people stop politicizing the issue, stop spreading malicious propaganda”.

The Information Office of the State Council, China’s ruling administrative body, has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations against Zhang.

‘Don’t just keep a mother’

The Beijing Winter Games were already facing international scrutiny, with President Joe Biden considering a diplomatic boycott over human rights and allegations of cultural genocide.

The US and independent watchdogs accuse Chinese President Xi Jinping’s one-party state of suppressing freedom of speech and political protest through an unprecedented system of surveillance and censorship. Under Xi, China has become one of the most authoritarian countries in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index.

China’s state-run Global Times said in an editorial last week that Western objections were motivated by jealousy and fear, and declared that the Games would be a rite of passage for China “as a mature, dominant power”.

This is not the first time that the IOC has faced criticism for being silent on the alleged abuse by the host country.

Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that what stands out from the incident is that the IOC is “not just silent about human rights abuses; they are playing an active role in the narrative that the Chinese government has been exposed to.” operating.”

Few have wondered how freely Peng must have felt able to speak while watching one of the on call The IOC member in China was Li Lingwei, who is also a representative of several Communist Party bodies.

Wang said the context is important: Chinese journalists, lawyers and celebrities have a history of disappearing after criticizing the government, who often come out months later to apologize to the party.

Some point to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as “a major turning point” in South Korea’s transition to democracy.Michelle Lipchitz / AP File

A proposed diplomatic boycott by Biden is being considered, in which top US officials would not attend the Games, seen by some as the best way to take a stand without punishing athletes. Others argue that China would not care much about some absentee politicians. The IOC is unlikely to cancel an event that promises billions of dollars in broadcast and advertising.

“A sports boycott does nothing,” Bach said last year, reflecting the massive boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier. “It’s only hurting the athletes and it’s hurting the nation’s population because they’re losing the joy of sharing.”

Although the IOC classifies itself as a non-profit organization that distributes 90 percent of its revenue to athletes and administrators, it is also extremely powerful and has $5.7 billion in assets, It says it has made diplomatic gains through the game, and aims to build “a peaceful and better world” without “discrimination of any kind”.

Some point to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as “a major turning point” in South Korea’s transition to democracy, as Aloysius M. O’Neill III, a diplomat at the US embassy in the city at the time, will write later, “The world had really come to Seoul.”

And the IOC received some praise for pushing China to temporarily relax press restrictions at the 2008 Beijing Games, allowing journalists to move freely around the country and interview anyone who gave their consent. got permission.

Critics like Curry see this as a hollow victory.

“The IOC claims to be a high-minded movement that promotes coming together through sport as a way of promoting peace and humanity,” said Curry, who is now at the Center for a New American Security. , a senior assistant fellow at a liberal-leaning think tank. , “Indeed, the IOC is nothing more than money and power.”

These critics say that starting in 1936, the IOC’s efforts to hold hosts accountable have either been unsuccessful or overtook by widespread and more symbolic ills.

The Berlin Games were awarded in 1931 before Hitler came to power. And the IOC tried to pressure Germany to include Jewish athletes on its team and remove anti-Semitic signs.

But only fencer Helen Meyer was chosen, who had a Jewish father. And although some anti-Semitic signs were removed, Nazi speech and pamphlets remained prevalent. The Games went ahead regardless and were a major public relations victory for the Nazis, reintroducing Germany to the global stage after World War I.

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According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, after the Olympics, Germany’s “expansionist policies and persecution of Jews and other ‘enemies of the state’ intensified, culminating in World War II and the Holocaust.”

Ten days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Mexican government forces killed an estimated hundreds of student protesters, but the Games went ahead without a hitch. And although the 1988 Games coincided with South Korea’s democratic transition, it was under its military dictatorship that the country was awarded the Games in 1981.

Most recently, the 2014 Sochi Winter Games triggered worldwide criticism after Russia introduced anti-gay “propaganda” legislation months earlier. The IOC added an anti-discrimination clause to its charter, but only seven months after the closing ceremony, when Bach called the event “a truly special experience” and thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for the “extraordinary success”.

Although China eased press restrictions prior to 2008, these freedoms ended later that year, and the country’s “mistreatment of journalists” has “continued to worsen” since then, According to the Committee on the Protection of Journalists, a New York non-profit organization.

The spectacle and sporting achievement of the 2008 Games acted as a worldwide bullhorn for China’s emergence as a global superpower. There were calls for a boycott even then, but current allegations of cultural genocide have escalated the objections to another level.

“If an ongoing carnage isn’t enough to make the IOC reconsider hosting the Games in China,” Curry, former US ambassador-at-large, asked, “what exactly will it take?”

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