It is once again time for the Winter Olympics. Although generally less popular than their summer counterpart, the Winter Olympics are still a huge spectacle, showcasing a wide variety of interesting sports, incredible athletes and intriguing storylines. The buzz and excitement surrounding the Olympics is heightened by their infrequency, but thus far, that buzz and excitement has been lacking, evidenced by the record-low ratings for the opening ceremonies. Reasons for this include Olympic fatigue with the summer Games having ended just this past August, audiences generally moving away from television and towards streaming/other types of coverage and the COVID restrictions that leave the Games with a very limited fan presence (which sucks a significant chunk of energy out of the Games). While these are all good explanations for the low ratings, there is one other reason that I think is far more important: China. Just 14 years after hosting the Summer Olympics, Beijing, China is now hosting the Winter Olympics. On the surface this may not seem like a big deal, since the Olympics are sometimes seen as an event that transcends global politics and unites the people of the world in good, old-fashioned, honest competition. However, the reality is (and always has been), that it is impossible to truly separate politics from sport. The Olympics especially have been used as a political tool or propaganda machine for some nations. You could argue that the Olympics were one of the significant battlefields of the Cold War, featuring boycotts by both the Americans and Soviets at separate Games, and the legendary showdowns between the US and USSR in ice hockey and basketball that left a huge cultural impact.
Coming back to 2022, China is embroiled in controversy and looking to clean up its image around the world. Obviously, the last few years have been spent dealing with a devastating pandemic that originated within China’s borders, and they were the target of much criticism from other countries for how they handled the situation, namely withholding information from the international community and not allowing World Health Organization inspectors into the country to study the origins of the virus. More recently, China has been imposing draconian restrictions to try and prevent the spread of COVID, including long quarantines, strict rules about moving between cities, locking down cities, forcibly removing citizens from their home to put them in quarantine, extreme surveillance and essentially keeping the entire country shut down. This strategy has worked quite effectively at containing the virus––according to China’s own data at least––but these measures are seen by some as too extreme and not worth the reduction in cases that they contribute to, especially by the Olympic athletes being forced to follow them. Polish speedskater Natalia Maliszewska said “I’ve been living in fear for over a week” in reference to the lack of clarity provided by Chinese officials when she was taken from her hotel room at 3am due to concern that she was COVID positive. The coach of Finland’s men’s ice hockey team went as far as to say that China was not respecting the human rights of his athlete Marko Anttila because he was “not getting good food” and was being put under tremendous amounts of mental stress.
Despite all that, COVID is not the biggest storyline surrounding the Beijing Games. Not even close. That title goes to China’s ongoing genocide of the Uyghur people, a minority group of about 12 million people that are predominantly Muslim and live in the Xinjiang region in northwestern China. Human rights groups believe that China has detained over a million Uyghur people and sent them either to prisons or concentration camps (referred to in China as “re-education camps”). The identification of concentration camps is backed up by satellite images of the compounds and stories from people who managed to escape the facilities about the horrors they faced within. Not only has China sent over a million Uyghur people to concentration camps, but they have reportedly been conducting mass sterilization of Uyghur women, torturing and sexually abusing detainees at the camps and forcing detainees to do harsh labor, including picking cotton. China denies any allegations of human rights abuses, but the evidence is crystal clear to the outside world, with multiple nations, including the US and the UK, formally accusing China of genocide. Additionally, China has banned UN human rights officials from entering the region. Numerous countries, including the US, are staging a “diplomatic boycott” of the Games, meaning that although they are still sending their athletes to compete, they will not be sending any government officials, representatives or diplomats to the Games.
Many believe that President Xi Jinping is attempting to use the Olympics as a distraction from the atrocities being committed by his government and to repair China’s image around the world. Nothing is more evident of this than the stunt pulled by the Chinese government during the opening ceremonies of the Games. China used cross country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang as one of the cauldron lighters (the state run media reports that she has Uyghur heritage). This is blatant tokenism. The Chinese government used this young woman as a pawn to proclaim to the world that there is “nothing to see here” and that all is well in China. They may as well have said, “Everyone is safe here, there is no war in Ba Sing Se.”
In spite of all this, China’s propaganda attempts with these Games may have backfired. Because of the Games, many people who otherwise wouldn’t be discussing China’s atrocities now are discussing them. Recently hashtags like #GenocideGames have been trending on Twitter and many activist groups are taking the opportunity to call for a boycott and attempt to educate people on what exactly is happening within the borders of the country hosting these Games. We can only hope that these Olympics will bring awareness about China’s genocide to people who would have otherwise never paid attention to it. The Chinese government’s genocide of the Uyghur people must not be ignored and they must be condemned, no matter what kind of sparkly propaganda they fly at us during these Games.