A coalition of 180 rights groups want a boycott of Beijing’s Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games because of reported human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China.
The games open in a year, Feb. 4, 2022, followed a month later by the Paralympic Games.
Canadian Olympic Committee chief executive officer David Shoemaker and Paralympic counterpart Karen O’Neill spoke to The Canadian Press on the ineffectiveness of a boycott, as well as the importance of Canada’s participation in Beijing.
Canada joined a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The Soviets not only remained in Afghanistan for another eight years, but led a revenge boycott of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.
“We only really have two choices here,” Shoemaker told The Canadian Press. “The choices are to pull out, to barricade ourselves, to divide, to further polarize and say out of protest we’re not going to go, or to engage and be part of a conversation, to amplify voices, to speak our mind on things that are important to us and to participate in the Games.
“When faced with those choices and the lessons learned from Moscow in 1980 and L.A. in 1984, the choice is clear.”
The rights coalition representing Tibetans, Uighurs, Inner Mongolians, residents of Hong Kong and others has issued an open letter to governments calling for a boycott of the Olympics “to ensure they are not used to embolden the Chinese government’s appalling rights abuses and crackdowns on dissent.”
Some Canadians have written on social media and comment forums that their country should boycott Beijing because of the continued imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Their arrest was seen as retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018 on a United States warrant. The U.S. wants her extradited to face fraud charges.
Shoemaker calls these issues “deeply concerning”, but believes the majority of Canadians want their athletes competing in Beijing.
He cites the 91 per cent of the country’s population that watched the 2016 Summer Games in Rio on television, and the 75 per cent who viewed the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, despite the 13-hour time difference.
“Having said that, we don’t want to minimize what’s happening in the host country,” Shoemaker said.
“We have serious concerns in particular about what’s happening to Muslim Uyghurs in Western China, and have discussed that with the Canadian government and the Canadian ambassador to China.
“They’ve assured us that it’s their top priority and being addressed on a government-to-government basis.
“We therefore see our role in this to deliver our teams to Games and be part of a conversation to amplify stories and to inspire and unite.”
Canada’s participation in the Paralympic Games raises the profile of and changes perceptions about the disabled in the host country, in Canada and around the world, O’Neill added.
“Our athletes are capable of great things and the impact on the overall message of access and inclusion in the local community, that’s an additional overlay from the para side of things,” she said.
Sport as an agent of social change leaped to the forefront in North America in 2020.
Led by the Milwaukee Bucks not taking the floor for a playoff game, the NBA, NHL, WNBA and Major League Baseball cancelled games after the Aug. 28 police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Wisconsin.
Shoemaker, a former head of NBA China before joining the COC, said NBA players eventually returned to the court with social-justice messages on their jerseys, and either knelt or locked arms during anthems, because athletes felt they could bring about more change by playing than not.
Canadian athletes can similarly change more by participating than they can from the sidelines, Shoemaker said.
“Canadian Olympians and Paralympians are very socially conscious and they’re very aware of what’s going on in China,” he said.
“I’ve spoken with the athletes’ commission about that and we’ve begun to tackle similarly, what kind of programs within our control can we do to advance the very causes that we think are being challenged or are in peril in China right now.”
Shoemaker wasn’t yet CEO of the COC in 2014, but he pointed to the Canadian team’s campaign ahead of the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, in the face of the country’s homophobic laws.
The COC loudly and continually heralded Canadian athletes across the country walking in Pride parades, which are illegal in Russia, the summer before the Sochi Games.
“I understand there were similarly some calls for boycott because of an anti-LGBTQ-plus set of laws and rules in Russia that were very hostile to Team Canada,” Shoemaker said.
“We made the decision, a difficult one, to go, but to strengthen our resolve around those kinds of programs and messages here in Canada.
“We now have among the most inclusive programming with an LGBTQ-plus focus you could imagine, which is a direct result of Team Canada competing in Sochi and being part of a conversation.”
Canada’s Paralympians want to compete in Beijing, but will not do so with their heads in the sand, O’Neill said.
“The memory of how the boycott did not obtain the kind of results, and in fact many would argue the negative far eclipsed what was thought to be the goodness in the boycott, in my whole sport career, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an open, transparent conversation in our community about appreciating what’s going on, and what can be done within their role and context of both leading up to and during the Games,” O’Neill said.
Former Olympic speedskater Susan Auch, who is now CEO of Canada’s national teams, doesn’t want Canadian athletes feeling the same devastation their 1980 counterparts did when told by their government they could not compete in to Moscow.
“I firmly believe nothing good comes from boycotts,” Auch said. “Politics and sport tend to come together, but they shouldn’t.
“From my perspective as a former athlete, I would say sport is a time where we need to put aside our differences and play the game.”
— With files from The Associated Press