In Peng Shuai case, critics see IOC story treating bossy hosts with children’s gloves

When Olympic Games Organizers held a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, with many activists and experts saying it was just a continuation of a decades-old trend in which the International Olympic Committee allowed and even encouraged authoritarian regimes.

Peng, three-time Olympian and former world number 1 doubles, was not seen for three weeks after making sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, a former deputy prime minister who was one of the most powerful officials from China.

Top stars in the sport and the Women’s Tennis Association have led a campaign demanding an investigation into Peng’s allegations. But the IOC issued two statements in which it sought to reassure the world that Peng is okay.

The committee held a video call with Peng last month, stating that she was “safe and healthy” and saying that she had requested confidentiality. On Thursday, the IOC said it had spoken to Peng again and offered “far-reaching support” – but it did not release video of the calls or mention the allegations.

IOC President Thomas Bach holds a video call with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai last month.Greg Martin / AFP – Getty Images

Kelley Currie, former U.S. Ambassador General for Global Women’s Issues, was among many critics appalled that the IOC is so willing to accept that Peng is doing well.

“It was typical of the IOC: take the Chinese Communist Party at its word despite all evidence to the contrary,” said Currie, who has also served as the United States’ representative on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. She called the COC’s response “selfish and hypocritical” and accused her of “participating in a blatant CCP propaganda effort to limit the damage.”

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She believes the IOC was too gullible on the assurances that have also been promoted by Chinese state media – and too eager to please the host of the Beijing Winter Olympics in less than three months.

Currie is also among many, 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 perpetrators of human rights to organize the biggest sporting event in the world as a soft- power tool.

It’s a decades-old model whose clearest and earliest example came at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, said John Hoberman, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who is researching the ethics of the Olympic Games since his 1986 book “The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order.

“In Beijing, the scenario of the Nazi Olympics is repeating itself,” he said.

At the time, Germany was allowed to revel in the spectacle of its games, although the world was well aware of Adolf Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitic laws. Likewise, Hoberman said, China welcomes the games despite being accused by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and others of cultural genocide against its Uyghur Muslim minority.

The Olympic flame was lit in Berlin in August 1936. It was guarded by members of the Hitler Youth before being transported to the Olympic stadium for the opening of the games.

According to human rights groups and first-hand accounts, China has detained 1 million Uyghurs and other minorities in internment camps where some are subjected to forced labor, sterilization and torture . China denies this and claims that “re-education camps” are necessary to fight terrorism.

“I cannot understand how a person with a conscience could watch the Beijing Winter Games in 2022 and not be haunted by the fact that a million people are tormented and subjected to cultural genocide,” Hoberman said. .

The IOC denies being too lenient with China and other hosts. In a statement, he said he “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 the host countries chosen by the government. his members.

On Thursday, the IOC said 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, the parent company of NBC News, is the IOC’s largest source of revenue, having paid $ 7.5 billion to extend U.S. media rights until 2032.

Peng Shuai at the opening ceremony for the final of the Fila Kids Junior Tennis Challenger in Beijing last month.@qingqingparis / via Reuters

Chinese officials and state media said the IOC’s appeal was proof that Peng was safe and free. Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week that he hoped this would mean that “some people will stop doing malicious hype, let alone politicizing” the issue.

The Information Office of the State Council, the ruling administrative body in China, did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations against Zhang.

“Not just keeping mum”

The Beijing Winter Games were already under international scrutiny, with President Joe Biden among those pondering a diplomatic boycott of human rights and allegations of cultural genocide.

The United States and independent watchdogs accuse Chinese President Xi Jinping’s one-party state of suppressing free 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 Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The Global Times, China’s hawkish public newspaper, said in an editorial last week that Western objections were motivated by jealousy and fear, and said the games would be “a rite of passage” for China “as a that great mature power ”.

This is not the first time that the IOC has come under fire for remaining silent on alleged abuses by a host country.

What sets this incident apart, Yaqiu Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that the IOC “doesn’t just keep silent about human rights violations – they play an active role in telling the story that the Chinese government orchestra. “

Some wondered how free Peng would have felt to speak up, given that one of the people On call was Li Lingwei, IOC member in China, who is also a representative of several organs of the Communist Party.

Wang said context is crucial: There is a story of Chinese journalists, lawyers and celebrities who disappear after criticizing the government, often reappearing months later to issue numerous apologies to the party.

Some see the 1988 Seoul Olympics as “a major turning point” in South Korea’s transition to democracy.Michel Lipchitz / AP File

The diplomatic boycott envisioned by Biden, in which senior U.S. officials would not attend the games, is seen by some as the best way to take a stand without punishing the athletes. Others argue that China wouldn’t care much about a few absent politicians. The IOC is unlikely to cancel an event that promises billions of dollars in broadcast and advertising.

“A sports boycott is pointless,” Bach said last year, reflecting on the massive boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan a year earlier . “It only hurts the athletes and the people of the country because they lose the joy of sharing.”

Although the IOC ranks as a non-profit organization that distributes 90 percent of its revenues to athletes and administrators, it is also extremely powerful and has assets of $ 5.7 billion. He says he has made diplomatic gains through sport and that he aims to build “a peaceful and better world” without “discrimination of any kind”.

Some refer to the 1988 Seoul Olympics as a “major turning point” in South Korea’s transition to democracy, such as Aloysius M. O’Neill III, a diplomat at the United States embassy in the city in the United States. era, would write later. “The world had really come to Seoul.”

And the IOC received praise in 2008 for pushing China to temporarily ease press restrictions at the Beijing Games, allowing journalists to roam the country freely and interview anyone who gave their consent.

Critics such as Currie see them as empty victories.

“The IOC claims to be a high-minded movement that promotes coming together through sport as a means of promoting peace and humanity,” said Currie, now senior associate researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a group of liberal tendency reflection. . “In reality, the CIO is nothing but money and power.”

Beginning in 1936, the IOC’s attempts to hold hosts to account were either unsuccessful or offset by broader and more symbolic evils, these critics say.

The Berlin Games were awarded in 1931 before Hitler came to power. And the IOC has tried to pressure Germany to allow Jewish athletes on its team and to remove anti-Jewish signs.

But only fencer Hélène Mayer, who had a Jewish father, was selected. And although some anti-Semitic signs were removed, Nazi speeches and pamphlets were rife. The games went ahead regardless and were a huge PR victory for the Nazis, reintroducing Germany to the world stage after WWI.

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 Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust.

Ten days before the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Mexican government forces shot dead hundreds of student protesters, but the games went unhindered. And although the 1988 games coincided with South Korea’s democratic transition, it was under its military dictatorship that the country received the games in 1981.

More recently, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi drew criticism around the world after Russia introduced an anti-gay “propaganda” law months earlier. 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 his “extraordinary success. “.

Although China eased restrictions on the press before 2008, those freedoms expired later in the year, and the country’s “mistreatment of journalists” has “steadily worsened” since, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York nonprofit.

The pageantry and sporting achievements of the 2008 Games acted as a worldwide voice for China’s emergence as a global superpower. Boycott calls were also made at the time, but current accusations of cultural genocide have raised objections on another level.

“If an ongoing genocide is not enough to get the IOC to reconsider hosting the games in China,” asked Currie, the former U.S. Goodwill Ambassador, “what exactly would it take?

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