When Olympics organizers held a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, many activists and experts said it was merely a continuation of a decadeslong trend in which the International Olympic Committee has enabled and even emboldened authoritarian regimes.
Peng, a three-time Olympian and former doubles world No. 1, wasn’t seen for three weeks after making sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier who was one of China’s most powerful officials.
The sport’s top stars and the Women’s Tennis Association have led a campaign demanding an investigation into Peng’s allegations. But the IOC has released two statements in which it has sought to reassure the world that Peng is OK.
The committee held a video call with Peng last month, reporting she was “safe and well” and saying that she asked for privacy. On Thursday, the IOC said it spoke with Peng again and was offering “wide-ranging support” — but it did not release video of the calls or mention the allegations.
Kelley Currie, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, was among many critics dismayed that the IOC would be so ready to accept that Peng was OK.
“It was typical IOC: take the Chinese Communist Party at its word despite all evidence to the contrary,” said Currie, who also served as the U.S. representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She called the IOC response “self-serving and hypocritical” and accused it of “participating in a blatant CCP propaganda damage-control effort.”
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She believes the IOC was too credulous of the reassurances that have also been promoted by Chinese state media — and too eager to please the host of the Beijing Winter Olympics less than three months away.
Currie is also among the many people, including activists, experts, historians and other critics, who see the episode as the latest in a long list of examples where the IOC has allowed human rights abusers to wield the world’s largest sporting event as a soft-power tool.
It’s a decades-old pattern whose clearest and earliest example came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has been researching Olympics ethics since his 1986 book “The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order.”
“In Beijing, the scenario of the Nazi Olympics is being repeated,” he said.
Back then, Germany was allowed to revel in the spectacle of its games, though the world knew full well about Adolf Hitler’s virulently antisemitic laws. Likewise, Hoberman said, China is hosting the games despite being accused by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and others of cultural genocide against its Uyghur Muslim minority.
According to human rights groups and first-hand accounts, China has held 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities in internment camps where some are subjected to forced labor, sterilization and torture. China denies this and says the “re-education camps” are necessary to fight terrorism.
“I cannot understand how any person with a conscience could watch the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 and not be haunted by the fact that a million people are being tormented and subjected to cultural genocide,” Hoberman said.
The IOC denies it has been too soft on China and other hosts. In a statement, it said it “must remain neutral on all global political issues” and does not take a position “on the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards” of host nations that are chosen by its members.
On Thursday, the IOC said that in the Peng case it was using “quiet diplomacy,” which it said was “the most promising way to proceed effectively in such humanitarian matters.”
NBCUniversal, NBC News’ parent company, is the IOC’s biggest single source of income, having paid $7.5 billion to extend U.S. media rights until 2032.
Chinese officials and state media pointed to the IOC call as evidence that Peng was safe and free. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week he hoped it would mean that “certain people will cease malicious hyping, let alone politicization” of the issue.
The Information Office of the State Council, China’s ruling administrative body, has not responded to requests for comment on the allegations against Zhang.
'Not just keeping mum'
The Beijing Winter Games were already facing international scrutiny, with President Joe Biden among those mulling a diplomatic boycott over human rights and the allegations of cultural genocide.
The U.S and independent watchdogs accuse Chinese President Xi Jinping’s one-party state of suppressing freedom of speech and political opposition through an unprecedented system of surveillance and censorship. Under Xi, China has become one of the most authoritarian countries in the world, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index.
The Global Times, China’s hawkish state-run newspaper, said in an editorial last week that Western objections were motivated by jealousy and fear, and declared the games would be “a rite of passage” for China “as a mature, major power.”
It is not the first time that the IOC has faced criticism for keeping silent on the alleged abuses by a host nation.
What makes this incident stand out, Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said is that the IOC is “not just keeping mum about human rights abuses — they are playing an active role in the narrative that the Chinese government is orchestrating.”
Some have wondered how freely Peng would have felt able to speak, considering that one of the people on the call was Li Lingwei, the IOC’s member in China, who is also a representative of several Communist Party bodies.
Wang said context is crucial: There is a history of Chinese journalists, lawyers and celebrities disappearing after criticizing the government, often emerging months later to offer profuse apologies to the party.
The proposed diplomatic boycott being considered by Biden, in which top U.S. officials would not attend the games, is seen by some as the best way to take a stand without punishing athletes. Others argue China wouldn’t care much about a few absent politicians. There is little prospect of the IOC canceling an event that promises billions of dollars in broadcasting and advertising.
“A sports boycott serves nothing,” IOC President Thomas Bach said last year, reflecting on the mass boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier. “It’s only hurting the athletes and it’s hurting the population of the country because they are losing the joy to share.”
Though the IOC classifies itself as a nonprofit organization that distributes 90 percent of its revenue to athletes and administrators, it is also hugely powerful and has assets of $5.7 billion. It says it has made diplomatic gains through sport, and that it aims to build “a peaceful and better world” without “discrimination of any kind.”
Some point to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as “a major turning point” in South Korea’s transition to democracy, as Aloysius M. O’Neill III, a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in the city at the time, would later write. “The world had truly come to Seoul.”
And the IOC won some praise in 2008 for pushing China to temporarily relax press restrictions at the Beijing Games, allowing journalists to move freely around the country and interview anyone who gave their consent.
Critics such as Currie see these as hollow victories.
“The IOC claims to be a high-minded movement that promotes coming together through sport as a way to promote peace and humanity,” said Currie, now a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a liberal-leaning think tank. “In reality, the IOC is about nothing more than money and power.”
Starting in 1936, the IOC’s attempts to hold hosts accountable have either been unsuccessful or outweighed by wider and more symbolic ills, these critics say.
The Berlin Games were awarded in 1931 before Hitler came to power. And the IOC did try to pressure Germany to allow Jewish athletes onto its team and to remove anti-Jewish signs.
But only fencer Helene Mayer, who had a Jewish father, was selected. And although some antisemitic signs were removed, Nazi speeches and pamphlets were rife. The games went ahead regardless and were a huge public relations win for the Nazis, reintroducing Germany on the global stage after World War I.
After the Olympics, Germany’s “expansionist policies and the persecution of Jews and other ‘enemies of the state’ accelerated, culminating in World War II and the Holocaust,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Ten days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Mexican government forces gunned down estimated hundreds of student protesters, but the games went ahead unimpeded. And although the 1988 games coincided with South Korea’s democratic transition, it was under its military dictatorship that the country was awarded the games in 1981.
More recently, the 2014 Sochi Winter Games triggered worldwide criticism after Russia introduced an anti-gay “propaganda” law months beforehand. The IOC did add an anti-discrimination clause to its charter, but only seven months after the closing ceremony, when Bach called the event “a real special experience” and thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for its “extraordinary success.”
Although China did relax press restrictions ahead of 2008, these freedoms expired later that year, and the country’s “mistreatment of journalists” has “steadily worsened” ever since, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York nonprofit organization.
The pageantry and sporting accomplishment of the 2008 Games acted as a bullhorn around the world for China’s emergence as a global superpower. There were calls for boycotts then too, but the current accusations of cultural genocide have raised objections to another level.
“If an ongoing genocide isn’t enough to get the IOC to reconsider holding the games in China,” Currie, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large, asked, “what exactly would it take?”