Olympic Chief’s Deep Ties to Uyghur Slave Labor Revealed

·5 min read
Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty
Juan Mabromata/AFP via Getty

A top Olympics official who said he’s “dead serious” about human rights has allowed his sports charity to take wads of cash from a Chinese sportswear company using Xinjiang cotton made by slave laborers.

Juan Antonio Samaranch Salisachs, the chairman of the IOC's coordination commission for the 2022 Beijing Olympics, also runs the Samaranch Foundation, a sports charity. The charity is funded by major Chinese companies such as ANTA Sports, a sportswear company that pledged in March to “continue to purchase and use” cotton from Xinjiang despite forced labor concerns.

ANTA has financially supported the foundation since its 2012 launch and has run the Olympic Charity Collaboration Alliance with the foundation since 2013. The brand is an active board member on the Samaranch Foundation, with CEO Ding Shizhong serving as its vice president.

The Chinese brand secured major Olympics sponsorship deals after Salisachs ascended to the IOC’s vice presidency in 2016. During Salisachs tenure, the IOC announced that ANTA Sports will provide uniforms for IOC officials for the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and other sport events. Those high profile endorsements fueled ANTA Sports’ meteoric rise to become the third largest sportswear company in the world by revenue.

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The IOC has so far refused to drop ANTA Sports despite its pledge to keep using Xinjiang cotton, telling Axios in April that it will “continue its due diligence efforts with ANTA.” Neither the IOC nor the Samaranch Foundation responded to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment about whether Salisachs’ personal ties to ANTA Sports factored into the organization's decision-making.

Salisachs’ relationship with ANTA Sports is just one of his many ties to Chinese entities, many of them in Xinjiang—a far-western region of China where the Chinese government has rounded up more than 1 million Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camp, forcing many of them into slave labor regimes in the region’s cotton fields. Those relationships might prove a liability for Salisachs as he struggles to fend off growing calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics over human rights concerns.

Salisachs refused to relocate the 2022 Games during an October 2020 meeting with activists. He instead pledged that he will be “dead serious” about protecting human rights in the Olympics, according to meeting minutes provided to The Daily Beast by the attendants. “Within our frame of influence, you better have no doubt that all human rights are more than being respected,” he told them.

But Salisachs’ personal ties to a brand that is “boasting the use of slave labor in Xinjiang” clearly violates that pledge, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Yaqiu Wang. “The IOC has totally made a mockery of its own human rights commitment,” she told The Daily Beast.

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The revelation that Salisachs’ foundation worked directly with ANTA Sports will likely add fuel to the bipartisan push in U.S. Congress to boycott the Olympics. In July, the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) asked the IOC to postpone the Beijing Olympics and publicly shamed its U.S. sponsors for backing the sport event. ANTA Sports also has few supporters on the hill; Republicans have demanded NBA athletes sever endorsement deals with the sporting brand.

“The news that [Salisachs’] foundation profits off of forced labor in Xinjiang is stomach churning,” Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), chair of the CECC, told The Daily Beast.

Salisachs is not the first in his family to build a close relationship with China. His father and former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch—the namesake of the Samaranch Foundation— whipped votes to help China win the bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In gratitude, the Chinese government built a 144,000 square feet memorial park dedicated to the late Samaranch in Tianjin, China.

So when his son launched the Samaranch Foundation in 2012, the Chinese government rolled out the red carpet. The foundation’s opening ceremony was held in the Grand Hall of the People. The Chinese Olympics Committee, as well as ANTA and other Chinese firms, contributed money to the charity, according to the Samaranch Foundation and state media reports.

The Samaranch Foundation “attache[d] great importance” to the “development of sports culture in Xinjiang,” since the region was one of the most remote areas in the country, according to a 2018 article written by the foundation. That objective is in line with that of the General Administration of Sports in China, the official government organ “in charge” of the Samaranch Foundation.

Under Salisachs’ helm, the Samaranch Foundation worked with ANTA Sports to “promote Olympic spirit and joy of sports” in Xinjiang by distributing sportswear and equipment for young athletes.

The Samaranch Foundation also proved more than willing to help advance the goals of the Xinjiang government, a region-level government unit in China whose leaders are appointed by Beijing to carry out the will of the Chinese Communist Party. In September 2018, the foundation’s representatives met with bureaucrats from the Xinjiang sports bureau to discuss the promotion of youth soccer in Xinjiang. One month later, the foundation hosted a youth soccer event in the autonomous region titled “One Belt One Road Soccer time.” One Belt One Road is the name of China's multi-trillion dollar initiative that seeks to build infrastructure, and by extension Chinese influence, in Central Asia, a region accessible through Xinjiang.

The Chinese government’s repression of the Muslim Uyghurs—which involves detention, forced sterilization, torture, and other crimes against the minority group—has pushed the U.S. government and several others to declare a genocide in the region. As global scrutiny over the Uyghur genocide grew, Xinjiang officials recognized the Samaranch Foundation as a tool to divert attention away from their brutal crackdown. When a Xinjiang official heard about an ethnically Uyghur motorcyclist supported by the foundation, he said that such stories are an opportunity to tell “a wonderful real story of Xinjiang, and China!” “Telling China's story well” is a common dog whistle referring to Chinese propaganda efforts—Chinese Leader Xi Jinping coined the phrase in 2013.

Salisachs’ personal relationships to ANTA and the Xinjiang government is just another signal that the IOC officials have “no interest even acknowledging atrocities faced by Uyghurs,” said Peter Irwin, a senior program officer at the Uyghur Human Rights Project. “Beijing 2022 will be the next Genocide Games, and they will be the figures responsible.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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