On Sept. 7, a group of 200 human rights groups wrote to Olympic broadcasters, including the CBC and NBC, asking them to cancel their coverage of the upcoming Beijing Winter Games and refrain from “sport washing” China’s lengthy list of human rights abuses.
In doing so, the human rights groups aim to hit the International Olympic Committee (IOC) where it hurts most — its bank account. The IOC’s sale of broadcasting rights accounts for a whopping 73 per cent of its funding. Much of this is distributed to National Olympic Committees, propping up the broader Olympic system.
The COC and CPC can’t help
The call for a broadcast boycott came months after a coalition of 180 human rights groups issued an open letter to international governments back in February, urging nations to withdraw from Beijing 2022. In Canada, the Liberal government passed the buck to leaders of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Canadian Paralympic Committee (CPC).
Reacting to the letter, the chief executive officers of the COC and the CPC — David Shoemaker and Karen O’Neill respectively — penned a joint op-ed in The Globe and Mail, predictably recycling an old pro-boycott argument.
“Boycotts don’t work. They punish only the athletes prevented from going, those they were meant to compete against and those who would have been inspired by them.”
But that’s not exactly true.
Writing on the international community’s sporting boycott of Apartheid South Africa, historian John Nauright suggests that “the psychological impact of sporting sanctions had perhaps the most potent role in undermining white South African confidence and complacency.”
Although the Olympic boycott alone didn’t topple apartheid, it was part of an important range of sanctions that ultimately wore down the racist regime.
The COC and CPC’s response is to be expected. Both organizations are embedded in the Olympic industry and have a lot to lose. The COC is partially funded by the IOC, and the COC and CPC have already accepted funding from private sponsors to prepare for 2022.
Both Shoemaker and O’Neill are beholden to their respective board of directors, limiting their ability to rock the Olympic and Paralympic boat. In fact, the head of every national Olympic committee is, by definition, an IOC mouthpiece.
China’s human rights abuses are persistent and documented
The situation in China remains grim. Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are detained in massive concentration camps and reduced to forced labour. Tibetans continue to struggle under what Human Rights Watch terms “coercive assimilationist policies” intended to strangle and extinguish their culture.
Pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong were recently sentenced to up to five years in prison for participating in an anti-government march in 2019. Freedoms of religion, assembly, expression and speech are stifled. And those who attempt to flee are subject to recapture, imprisonment and torture.
The IOC is likely well informed about China’s human rights abuses. After all, its report, “Recommendations for an IOC Human Rights Strategy” was co-authored by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who had first-hand experience working with the country. Hussein lamented over China’s lack of co-operation, noting that his staff “have not been given unfettered access to the country, including to the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the human rights situation is reportedly fast deteriorating.”
The IOC won’t budge
The IOC has a long history of paying lip service when it comes to human rights issues. For example, the Olympic Games routinely result in the displacement and abuse of host populations. No amount of lobbying from rights groups makes a difference. The IOC views hosting decisions in dollars and cents, and the cancellation of a single Games would mean billions in lost revenue.
When asked about China and human rights issues, IOC President Thomas Bach refused to denounce the country, skirting the question with vague assurances of peaceful internationalism.
In 2015, just seven years removed from the human rights debacle that was the Beijing 2008 Olympics — including the intimidation and imprisonment of those who dared resist the event — the IOC once again awarded Beijing the Games, this time for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
It was a controversial decision. Few nations wanted the Olympics, resulting in a two bid race between China and Kazakhstan, neither of which boast a strong human rights record. By selecting Bejing, the IOC chose to be complicit in China’s violation of human rights.
Bigger than sport
The call for a broadcast boycott opens the door for international broadcasters to do something truly noble — take a stand in support of human rights and refuse to show the 2022 Beijing Olympics. As public and private national broadcasters respectively, the CBC and NBC are beholden to the general public above all else. Not national Olympic and Paralympic Committees. Not advertisers. Not the government. The people.
According to one recent poll, a majority of Canadians — amounting to 64 per cent of those surveyed — either “support” or “somewhat support” boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games. Americans, meanwhile, are nearly split down the middle with 49 per cent supporting a boycott. As the Games edge closer, and China’s human rights violations inevitably face heightened scrutiny, the support to boycott will continue to grow.
Many people want to support the Uyghurs, Tibetans, pro-democracy advocates and others struggling for their human rights in China. As national broadcasters, the CBC and NBC can help people do just that. If international broadcasters choose not to boycott the Beijing Olympic Games, they will be complicit in the human rights abuses ongoing in China.