Exeter, Devon UK • Apr 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Comment The Winter Olympics: are they ‘sportswashing’?

The Winter Olympics: are they ‘sportswashing’?

Kanumera Creiche discusses the controversy and political boycotting of the Winter Olympics.
5 mins read
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Photo by Kuzzat Altay on Unsplash

Kanumera Creiche discusses the controversy and political boycotting of the Winter Olympics.

The Winter Olympic Games are on, people! Usually, I would turn on my TV to dream about holidays in the Alps, imagining myself hitting the slopes and relaxing after a long day of skiing in a lounge chair while admiring the mountains with a fresh pint in my hand.

However, this is not the usual Olympic Games, and if you turn on your TV to watch, it is important that you be aware of it. This 2022 Olympics Game are shameful. And they are for several reasons. I could be writing about the environmental disaster they represent – it will approximately require up to fifty million gallons of water to artificially snow cover the two games’ outdoor venues. But instead, I will write about the genocide that is taking place within the borders of the host country itself: China.

In the province of Xinjiang, human rights atrocities are currently being committed by the Chinese government against the local Uyghur population. Evidence of mass “re-education” camps detaining more than one million Uyghurs have been collected over the past few years shedding a light on the industrial genocide taking place. In these camps, the Uyghurs are subject to forced sterilisation, cultural repression and slave work, specifically cotton picking. With the evidence and backlashing mounting, several countries including the US, Canada, and the UK have recognised that a genocide is taking place in the region, and several Western clothing brands made sure to remove Xinjiang cotton from their supply chains.

The testimonies of Uyghur victims did not prevent the International Olympic Committee from awarding China with the honor of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympic games. Facing the controversy, the IOC defends itself by arguing that the Olympics Game are apolitical and that they do not have the power to change the world. Yet, their weak defense did not convince the rest of the world, as many countries decided to follow the United States’ lead to politically boycott the Winter Olympic Games. The political boycott of the event does not prevent athletes from competing, but no political figures will attend the festivities.

The fact that the Winter Olympics Games are being politically boycotted by several countries around the world exemplifies the political nature of the Games, whether the IOC wants it or not. They are a stage for a country to demonstrate its soft power to the world. Awarding countries that do not respect basic human rights with the possibility to host major sport events allows them to change the narrative, to make us forget about the atrocities taking place, and to paint an international image that suits them. This phenomenon has a name: sportswashing. And it is not new, it goes back as far as Hitler’s Germany hosting the Olympics game in 1936.

Awarding countries that do not respect basic human rights with the possibility to host major sport events allows them to change the narrative

In 2022, sportswashing appears to be authoritarian regimes’ new favorite strategy. Whether it is the 2022 Football World Cup in Qatar or the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, authoritarian countries blatantly violating human rights are trying to improve their international image. Plus, Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, argues that an increasing number of authoritarian countries are awarded the right to host international sport events because they do not risk to face public hostility and can more easily build facilities and displace large numbers of people.

Answering the backlash, China has threatened the countries embracing the political boycott and hypocritically accused the US of politicizing sport. Yet, China politicizes sports like no other country. For instance, in 2018, China restricted its citizens from traveling to South Korea to attend the Winter Olympic Games over a defense missile controversy, not to mention that China boycotted the Olympic Games for three decades until 1984 due to Taiwan’s participation. To further defy the West, with the support of the IOC China selected a Uyghur cross-country skier as one of the torchbearer during the opening ceremony. Washington Post columnist Isaac Stone Fish compared it with Nazi Germany choosing a Jewish athlete to light the torch at the 1936 Olympic Games. 

In a utopian world, politics would have nothing to do with sports, and athletes would not find themselves caught in a crossfire between nations. But this is real life, and it is hypocritical to assume that authoritarian countries can host international sport events without facing turmoil, especially in the face of blatant human rights violations.

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