Businesses get free pass in China but Olympic athletes questioned

BEIJING Long before some of the world’s best athletes got set to march into the Bird’s Nest Stadium on Friday to witness the lighting of the torch, there were calls to pre-emptively extinguish these Winter Olympics.

There were demands to boycott the Games so China’s ever-emboldened authoritarian regime wouldn’t benefit from them — an outcome that, if the history lesson of the West’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games taught us anything, punishes athletes and changes almost nothing. And then there was the Green Party’s big idea, raised little more than a year ago, to move the Games to Vancouver — a hypothetical fantasy that drew a chuckle from a man named John Furlong, who once organized an Olympics in that city, and who made it clear that such an endeavour would require years of careful lead time, not harried months.

So here we are, on the eve of a Chinese Winter Games, and the question beyond the field of play is a doozy: knowing what we know about China’s blatant disregard for human rights, not to mention the surveillence-state tendencies that have led multiple countries to recommend their athletes and officials arrive here with burner phones and laptops, it possible to watch this televised spectacle of snow and ice with a clear conscience?

“We seem to be asking a version of that same question all the time. And it’s intensifying,” Bruce Kidd, the former Olympian and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said in a recent interview.

“Do you go to the World Cup in Qatar? Do you go to Texas to watch sports with the anti-abortion law there? As states, national and local, are creating more and more authoritarian and repressive conditions, what does that mean for the traditions of international sport? It’s getting harder to watch with a completely clean conscience.”

It’s getting harder. But Kidd said he will be watching, for a handful of good reasons. For one, he’s an admirer of athletes. Not only have Canada’s athletes wrestled with the ethical questions partaking in these Games. They’ve done so knowing the usual ancillary benefits of being an Olympian will be few to zero. The usual perks of participation are all but non-existent thanks to China’s stringent anti-COVID measures. The opportunity for immersion in a fascinating culture amounts to zero. And yet it says something about the resilience of Olympic athletes that they’ve come here all the same.

“Canadian athletes have been debating this for three years now. I know there’ve been active discussions. They’ve educated themselves by listening to activists. They are seized with this issue. But they’ve decided to go to Beijing and make an Olympics despite the terrible restrictions of the Chinese and COVID, and come together as a world in a way they’ve always aspired to. And I admire them for that,” Kidd said. “Boy oh boy, it can’t be easy under any of these restrictions. In an imperfect world that’s what they’ve decided to do. And I admire their determination.”

For another thing, Kidd said he’s of the belief that change is coming to global sport, albeit slowly. In assisting with the preparation of Canada’s bid for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, Kidd said organizers were asked to fill out a questionnaire detailing domestic human rights concerns.

“I think increasingly that’s going to be part of the bidding for major international sports events,” Kidd said. “But that questionnaire wasn’t sent to Qatar.”

Further, Kidd said he remains a believer in the Olympic ideal, which is not to say he’s also not a proponent of pressuring the International Olympic Committee to demand higher standards from its dance partners.

“The tradition that I’ve grown up in and still believe in — although it’s harder and harder to get these points out — is that the Olympics were intended to bring people together, not despite our differences but because of our differences,” Kidd said.

It’s about establishing a tradition of coming in peace to consider other points of view.

“And when there are big crises, we can be a part of a cohort in society that argues for talk, talk, talk rather than, as we see in the case of a Putin and Ukraine, threats of war,” Kidd said.

It’d be wonderful, for once, if you could simply cheer for the athletes without weighing the ethics. Alas, as much as Canada’s contingent at the Beijing Olympics will arrive at Friday’s opening ceremony with a chance for a more-than-respectable medal haul, it’s hard to overlook the notion that neither the International Olympic Committee nor Chinese organizers have given assurances that athletes who protest will remain free to go about their business.

Given that China isn’t long removed from jailing a couple of Canadians in apparent retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese technology executive, the spectre of potential punishment is intimidating enough that at least one human rights group has advised Olympians against speaking out at the Games. The wise counsel is to concentrate on competing in Beijing and save the political statements for the safety of home soil.

“I hear stories of people who are going to say things,” said Kidd. “I also know people who’ve said let’s not go to the wall on this one. Let’s keep our powder dry and fight another day. I know Canadian athletes have said that this teaches us we’ve got to encode human rights more comprehensively in Olympic sport. We can’t forget this. But maybe we pursue this in the months and years ahead rather than die on this hill in Beijing.”

And maybe, too, we stop expecting the leaders of the sports world to wield magic solutions to the world’s big problems. For all the talk of boycotting Beijing — and Canada has joined the United States and other nations in a diplomatic boycott — advocates of the athletes who become the pawns in these discussions might suggest other solutions. If Canadians are truly serious about taking a stand against China, how about boycotting a chunk of our $100 billion annual trade relationship with the Olympic hosts? Why should Canada’s sports community be forced to explain its reasons for competing in China while its business community gets to stay silent as it gets rich there?

Kidd, for one, saw the headline this past summer — the news that Tim Hortons, the global doughnut chain that likes to wrap itself in a Maple Leaf, has plans to add some 2,500 locations in China over the coming five years.

“Is anybody going to the local Tim Hortons franchise and walking around with a picket saying, ‘I’ll never drink a Timmy’s again until you get out of China’?” Kidd said. “Those are the kinds of things that drive athletes crazy. In all of these debates … sports leaders have said, We have an obligation for things over which we have control. But please, recognize we don’t have the ability to change things that are outside our scope. What we can do is bring people together to talk about those things under peaceful auspices. But don’t expect us to change human rights outside the bounds of sports. If governments can’t do it, do you think that we can do it?”

“I guess it’s a tribute to the symbolic power of athletes that we’re the only ones being asked to do this.”

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