Last fall, the International Olympic Committee held a video call with activists calling for Beijing’s withdrawal as host of the 2022 Winter Olympics. During the call, activists said the Beijing Games would legitimize growing human rights violations by the Chinese government.
“You, ladies and gentlemen, have your own responsibilities,” replied Juan Antonio Samaranch, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the next Winter Games, according to contemporary notes seen by BuzzFeed News. “We have ours.”
Activists highlighted the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang, the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and the continued crackdown in Tibet. But IOC officials dismissed their questions, saying the 2008 Beijing Olympics led to better air quality and public transport, according to notes and interviews with several activists involved.
Calling it the “Genocide Olympics,” dozens of human rights groups have urged the IOC to move the games to another country, with some comparing the upcoming competition to that held in Nazi Germany in 1936. The United States and Canada have publicly called China the treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as genocide.
In response to a detailed list of questions for this article, the IOC said it has taken into account NGO views on issues such as human rights for the Beijing Games. The committee said it raised these issues with the government and local authorities, who assured them they would respect the Olympic Charter.
“Given the diversity of participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues,” the IOC said in an email. “The attribution of the Olympic Games to a National Olympic Committee does not mean that the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country.”
The IOC supports the human rights principles set out in the Olympic Charter, he said, and “takes this responsibility very seriously”.
“At the same time,” he said, “the IOC has neither the mandate nor the capacity to change the laws or the political system of a sovereign country. This should rightly remain the legitimate role of governments and respective intergovernmental organizations. “
The IOC has repeatedly stressed its neutrality in response to questions about the ethics of the organization of games in China. But during the private video call on October 6, 2020, IOC officials went further.
The call, which lasted over an hour and was attended by a group of six activists and five IOC officials, began with hope but ended up being strained, some of the activists on the call said.
Officials argued that the Olympics could be a catalyst for better infrastructure. They referred to the 2008 Summer Olympics, arguing that when Beijing hosted that year, it spurred improvements in infrastructure and air quality.
“They still have air quality issues, but for the first time they mentioned that the blue sky is called ‘Olympic Blue’ because … it was the first time they could see air. ‘air blue in Beijing,’ an official said, according to the notes.
Teng Biao, one of China’s best-known human rights lawyers, was on the call. He told BuzzFeed News he was not impressed.
“It’s too difficult to defend the Chinese government in terms of human rights or the rule of law,” Teng told BuzzFeed News. “So they can only find something like environmental policies.”
“Holding the Olympics again in Beijing can be seen as an endorsement of the CCP’s atrocities, including the Uyghur genocide,” he said.
Teng lived in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics and said that, like other human rights lawyers, he was banned from travel, detained and tortured while in custody before the games. He said he told officials his experience shows that holding the Olympics in Beijing again can hurt. Police could not be reached for comment. But IOC officials seemed indifferent, Teng said.
Samaranch, the chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission, said during the call that the games are “an extraordinary force for good”, bringing together people of different races and religions “and even political systems, ladies and gentlemen. gentlemen, even political systems, ”according to the notes seen by BuzzFeed News.
“The world lives under many political systems,” he added. “We can’t go and say and approve one or the other.”
Zumretay Arkin, program and advocacy manager at the Uyghur World Congress, told IOC officials during the appeal that she had missing relatives in Xinjiang.. She said officials told her they were sorry to hear, but the world is a complicated place – a memory echoed by the notes as well as by other activists at the meeting.
Arkin told BuzzFeed News that she strongly disagrees with IOC officials. “Everything has gotten worse since 2008,” she said. “We have a complete genocide, we have people in concentration camps, and you are telling us that the situation has not worsened?”
“We are suffering from these policies,” she added. “You would never think of hosting the games in North Korea or anywhere else. Why is China different? “
Dorjee Tseten, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, said he told officials he and others risked retaliation for themselves and their families for publicly protesting the IOC’s decision. He also noted that many Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans have been detained or killed during the decades-long government campaign. Violent protests erupted in Tibet ahead of the 2008 Games and, at the time, the IOC President said the protests were a “crisis” for the organization. But those responsible for the video call didn’t seem to care, Tseten said.
“I was shocked,” he said. “How can I explain the cold faces? They didn’t even recognize the pain.
Arkin, Teng and Tseten said talks with the IOC have continued since October, including on a second call this month, but Arkin said nothing substantial had changed. Politicians in the US and Europe, including former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, have in recent months called on governments to boycott the games. Critics say it could unfairly penalize athletes. But activists say they see a diplomatic boycott as their only option, as the IOC is unlikely to move the games.
Human rights groups are also seeking to pressure companies like Airbnb to sever sponsorship ties with the 2022 Games.
Tseten and others who were involved in the protests leading up to the 2008 Games say China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong and abuses in Xinjiang mean they are even less defensible this time around.
“We told them that in the end it would be a game of genocide,” Tseten said. “And in history, the IOC will remain in this framework.”