Uyghur torch lighting made Beijing Winter Olympics the most political games ever
Viewers of the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony in Beijing were treated to what will be remembered as one of the most overt political statements in Olympic history.
China and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claim that ethnicity was not a factor in Beijing’s selection of a cross-country skier from Xinjiang as one of the final torchbearers at the ceremony, but this was a crass and insensitive political ploy seemingly designed to show open defiance of Western charges of ethnic genocide committed by China against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups.
The IOC — which calls itself the guardian of the Olympic Games and the leader of the Olympic movement — became complicit by allowing this, while at the same time reiterating assertions that politics should be divorced from sport. This can’t continue, and the international community must stand firm against China’s human rights atrocities.
The Chinese government has arbitrarily detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic-speaking minority of about 11 million in the northwest region of Xinjiang, as part of a broader “sinicization” campaign to eradicate the identities of non-Han Chinese ethnic populations.
Actions against detainees and the broader population reportedly include forced labor, renunciation of Islam, family separation, torture and sterilization. The Trump administration charged China with genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs in 2021, a designation with which the Biden administration concurred. President Joe Biden imposed a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Games, primarily citing atrocities in Xinjiang. About a dozen other countries followed suit.
But China defiantly rejects all charges from the international human rights community as Western propaganda and defends the internment camps as “vocational training” centers — and it doesn’t allow international access.
Against this backdrop, Beijing’s choice of a Uyghur athlete as the final torchbearer is hardly a sign of Chinese magnanimity toward its ethnic minorities. As Washington Post columnist Isaac Stone Fish tweeted, the historical equivalent would be Nazi Germany choosing a Jewish athlete to light the torch at the 1936 Olympic Games.
This isn’t the first time that statements have been made with the Olympic torch lighting ceremony, but the previous messages have been poignant, uplifting and fully fluent with the spirit of the games, such as Muhammed Ali at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
In Asia, the 1988 Seoul Olympics featured Sohn Kee-Chung, a Korean gold medalist in the 1936 Olympics who was forced to accept the medal under the Japanese flag because Korea was a colony at the time. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics featured the track athlete Yoshinori Sakai, who was born the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima during World War II, and his presence signified Japan’s return to the world stage as an affluent democracy after an era of fascism, war and military occupation.
No blame should be levied at the Uyghur athlete (for this reason I have not included her name). On the contrary, she probably had little choice in the matter and would have faced untold difficulties had she resisted.
IOC President Thomas Bach has turned a deaf ear on all criticism of Chinese human rights abuses. His seemingly staged video call with former Olympian and tennis star Peng Shuai, who went missing after her charges of sexual abuse against a senior Chinese Communist Party official, are sad attempts to sweep the issue under the rug for the sake of the games.
And Chinese charges that Biden’s boycott is politicizing the Olympics are also laughable.
No country has politicized sports more than China. It sanctioned the NBA’s Houston Rockets in 2019 when one of the team’s staff members retweeted a statement supporting democracy protestors in Hong Kong. It restricted citizens from traveling to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games in South Korea over a missile defense controversy. It boycotted the Olympics for nearly three decades, ending with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, because of Taiwan’s participation. And it will likely do retaliatory diplomatic boycotts of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics and 2032 Brisbane Games.
China’s actions are an unmistakable slap in the face to the U.S.-led boycott, but Biden never expected that the action would change China’s policies in Xinjiang.
The use of the Uyghur athlete may have been Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s effort to double down and to demonstrate China’s unapologizing confidence and strength, defiant of Western criticism. But in doing so, Xi has likely done more to damage the Olympic spirit than any other leader in recent history, with the IOC as what seems a willing accomplice.
Victor Cha is a senior fellow in Human Freedom at the George W. Bush Institute and professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of “Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.”
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