Human rights concerns are mixing uneasily with athletic prowess at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and it may just be a sign of things to come, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: The tired idea that politics and sport don’t mix has long been established as a fallacy – if that seems in doubt, just ask any New Zealander with memories of the 1981 Springboks tour.

But that cliché beloved of sporting officials is receiving perhaps one of its toughest challenges this month, as Beijing plays host to the Winter Olympics amidst the fallout from ongoing Great Power tensions.

The United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada – New Zealand’s partners in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – were among those to announce a diplomatic boycott of the Games late last year, leading Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin to warn darkly the countries would “pay a price for their erroneous moves”.

The boycott has been sparked by the Asian superpower’s poor record on human rights issues, including concerns about the ill-treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the country’s Xinjiang province.

Protests of varying shapes and sizes took place around the world in the lead-in to the event, while the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (including two Kiwi MPs, Labour’s Louisa Wall and National’s Simon O’Connor) failed in a request for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to finally release a long-awaited report into the situation in Xinjiang.

Athletes themselves have been cautioned against making their own political stands with the threat of “certain punishment”, and they may not only be concerned about what they say out loud.

The potential for tensions boiling over would seem significant – yet if anything Beijing has leaned into the controversy.

A report from internet watchdog Citizen Lab raised concerns about a “devastating flaw” in encryption protocols for the MY2022 app, mandated for all Games attendees.

The group also identified a censorship keyword list within the app covering topics like Xinjiang and Tibet, albeit inactive at the time of their research.

Then there is the ongoing unease over the plight of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who alleged via social media that a senior Chinese official had pressured her into having sex – only for the sportswoman to disappear from the public arena and eventually recant.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach met Peng on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, a fairly bland statement from the IOC offering little information on the discussions; in an hour-long interview with French media outlet L’Équipe published on the heels of the meeting, the Chinese athlete repeated prior claims of an “enormous misunderstanding” about her original post.

Add it all up, and the potential for tensions boiling over would seem significant, yet if anything Beijing has leaned into the controversy.

Uyghur skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang was one of the two Chinese athletes chosen to deliver the flame to the Olympic cauldron, in a move it would have known would anger its critics and lead to claims of a political stunt.

The country’s government is not unfamiliar with batting away human rights critiques during a sporting event, given similar concerns were raised about the treatment of Tibetans when Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics.

But while the 2008 Games were seen by some as China’s coming-out party onto the world stage, the 2022 iteration is already far less rose-tinted, given the failure of predictions that the country’s integration into the global economy would lead to further liberalisation of its political culture.

NZ’s response: pragmatic or muddled?

New Zealand’s response to the diplomatic furore could be described as suitably pragmatic or unhelpfully muddled, depending on which side of the China fence you sit.

In December last year, Sports Minister Grant Robertson said the Government had earlier decided against sending any ministers to Beijing – a call he chalked down to the logistics of international travel during the Covid pandemic, rather than a calculated snub.

But while Robertson was clear the decision should not be seen as a boycott, that message did not get through to Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor when he spoke to Parliament’s foreign affairs committee later that month.

O’Connor answered in the affirmative when asked by National trade spokesman Todd McClay whether he backed the boycott, adding: “It’s something that we need to do as a nation – we need to stand up and make points.”

Exactly what point is being made seems a little unclear, while foreign affairs officials were coy about which diplomats would attend the opening ceremony, saying only that “a representative from the New Zealand Embassy attended, as a signal of support for our athletes in the absence of international spectators”.

For regimes looking to “sportswash” their reputations on the global stage, the benefits may well be worth the costs – so there should be plenty of opportunity for sports and politics to mix in the years ahead.

“Like others, we do have concerns regarding the human rights situation in China and we continue to raise these with China both privately and in public statements.”

The New Zealand team in Beijing has also been cagey about the broader political debate: the New York Times reported that NZ Olympics spokesman Lewis Hampton cut off an attempt to ask three Kiwi skiers about the rules on political statements, saying the athletes were there to talk about “performance” rather than protest.

With the Winter Olympics running until February 20, there seems scope for more uncomfortable situations.

It won’t be the last large-scale sporting event held in an authoritarian state, either: November’s FIFA World Cup will take place in Qatar, while the astronomical costs associated with hosting such events have increasingly triggered pushback from locals and made them less viable for most countries.

For regimes looking to “sportswash” their reputations on the global stage, the benefits may well be worth the costs – so there should be plenty of opportunity for sports and politics to mix in the years ahead.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment