COMMENT: Sporting bodies need to do more to uphold human rights

The curtains have come down on the Beijing Winter Olympic games with a stunning closing ceremony. The city has put on a great spectacle but should never have been allowed to host the games in the first pace.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has committed countless human rights abuses in recent years. It has controlled the internet, destroyed democracy in Hong Kong and detained over a million Uyghur Muslims in labour camps. This is not a regime which should be rewarded with hosting the showpiece of winter sports.  

Gus Kenworthy, a British freestyle skier, said on Saturday that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should do more to take human rights into consideration when awarding the games to a country.

He told the Guardian: “Because it’s the world stage and everyone is watching, there is an opportunity to create positive change and the IOC could help dictate that change by pushing on certain issues. Those issues are human rights issues.”

The Beijing games faced diplomatic boycotts from the UK, USA, India, Australia, Lithuania, Kosovo, Belgium, Denmark and Estonia over the Uyghur issue. This meant that ambassadors did not travel to the games, but the country’s athletes still competed. 

But Sebastian Coe, former Olympian and senior member of the IOC, completely undermined these boycotts when he said that they were “frankly meaningless”, and that sport could help to improve an imperfect world. 

Sport does have the power to improve the world but that is the point of these boycotts. The IOC rewarding regimes that regularly commit crimes against humanity with lucrative sporting spectacles is not how to improve the world, taking a stand against them is.  

The IOC also reiterated its stance that athletes would not be allowed to protest on the podium, saying – as it has throughout its history – that sports and politics should be separate. This was the stance it took when it expelled US athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics for doing the Black Power salute.

But a global event will always be political and athletes have earned the right to use their platform however they want. The IOC should not have the right to ban athletes from expressing themselves.

Coe and the IOC have failed to uphold both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and the IOC Code of Ethics. Both guidelines state that the games should be used to improve and promote human rights. Granting a country which continually flouts human rights laughs in these face of these principles. 

In 2001, the Beijing Olympics Bid Committee promised the IOC that the regime would take major steps towards improving its human rights by 2008 if the capital was granted host status for the games. The Chinese authorities broke this promise. They forcibly removed people from Beijing to build the stadium and imprisoned human rights activists, Hu Jia, Ye Guozhu and Yang Chunlin, for peacefully voicing their concerns over the actions of the CCP.

The IOC granting them another showpiece completely undermines their mission statement of promoting human rights and shows there is no punishment for breaking the rules.

These games are not the only 2022 sporting spectacle to be embroiled in controversy. The FIFA World Cup will take place in Qatar in December. According to a Guardian report, the stadiums and infrastructure built for the tournament have killed over 6500 migrant workers. Furthermore, Qatari law bans homosexuality and denies basic rights to women.

Many pundits have called for footballers to boycott the event but that ignores the fact that this could be the only time many of these players will get to represent their country at the highest level. It is not the responsibility of sportsmen and women but rather of governing bodies to ensure countries meet the necessary criteria of human rights before they are allocated a tournament. 

When FIFA removed Sepp Blatter and cleansed the institution of corruption, it should have overturned the decision to grant Qatar the World Cup. The decision to go ahead with the Gulf country as host shows that the legacy of corruption and incompetence at FIFA will not be easy to root out.  

We should be proud of our athletes, such as Kensworthy, using their platform to bring about positive change but they shouldn’t have to. It is the duty of international sporting bodies, like FIFA and the IOC, to uphold human rights. Instead, they reward repressive regimes, threaten to punish athletes for expressing themselves and undermine diplomats for trying to make a positive difference.

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