ZHANGJIAKOU, China (AP) — When three-time Olympian Gus Kenworthy made the remarkable, perhaps even courageous, decision to speak out against “human rights atrocities” while still in China at the Winter Games , the self-proclaimed ‘noisy and obnoxious’ British skier also proved that other athletes, had they chosen, might have been able to use their Olympic platform to speak out too.
Because Kenworthy was not taken away and imprisoned, as Chinese critics of the ruling Communist Party regularly are. It would have generated exactly the kind of global focus on the Chinese government’s authoritarian methods that he sought to avoid while the world’s biggest sporting spectacle was in town.
And with the notable exception of Kenworthy, China has largely accomplished this mission.
Olympians who were hesitant to chase after medals in a country accused of genocide against its Uyghur Muslim population and other abuses kept their views on these matters to themselves for the duration of their stay. And maybe for good reason: they faced vague but ultimately undeployed Chinese punishment threats, constant surveillance and the sobering example of the tennis star’s struggles. Peng Shuai after she made allegations of forced sex against a Communist Party official.
“We’ve seen an effective silence from 2,800 athletes, and that’s scary,” said Noah Hoffman, a former US Olympic skier and board member of the global athlete advocacy group that lobbies for Olympic reform.
Kenworthy, speaking to The Associated Press ahead of his 8th place finish in the halfpipe final on the penultimate day of the Games, explained why.
“We are in China, so we play by China’s rules. And China makes its rules as it goes, and it certainly has the power to do whatever it wants: hold an athlete, stop an athlete from leaving, stop an athlete from competing,” he said.
“I’ve also been advised to tread lightly while I’m here and that’s what I try to do.”
Immediately after the competition, however, the proudly gay athlete’s gloves came off.
He prefaced criticism with praise for “China’s incredible work with these Olympics” and carefully calibrated his words. But unlike other Olympians, he couldn’t bite his tongue before heading home. Kenworthy took aim not only at the host country’s rights abuses and ‘wrong stance on LGBTQ rights’, but also at other athletes who he says are trying to ‘appeal to the masses’ and avoid ruffling the feathers.
“I’ve kind of already accepted that’s not what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m just going to speak my truth.”
In fairness, the Olympians found themselves stuck on all sides in Beijing. Activists abroad hoped they would spark global outrage over the imprisonment in re-education camps of an estimated 1 million or more people, mostly Uyghurs. China, supported to the end by the International Olympic Committee, did not want critical voices to be heard. And their own voices were telling the athletes to focus, focus, focus on pursuing the Olympic success that they, their coaches and their families have sacrificed for.
The breadth and vagueness of a Chinese official’s pre-Games threat of “certain sanctions” for “any behavior or speech contrary to the Olympic spirit” seemed to have a particularly sobering effect on teams bound for Beijing. Activists who met athletes in the United States in the weeks before they left, lobbying Uyghurs and crushing dissent in Tibet and Hong Kong, noticed the thrill.
“Before the declaration, we had engaged with a number of athletes,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director at Students for a Free Tibet. They “expressed a lot of interest in learning more and engaging with the issue of human rights”.
Afterwards, “there was a very, very clear difference” and “one athlete even said directly to an activist: ‘I was instructed not to take anything from you or talk to you'”, she said. stated in a telephone interview.
Other concerns also weighed on the Olympians, far beyond the usual anxieties that often accompany travel to a foreign country, far from the comforts of home.
Warnings of possible cyber spying by Chinese security services and team advisories that athletes are leaving electronic devices at home were alarming for a generation weaned off social media and constant connectivity to their worlds.
Also carried daily coronavirus tests which were compulsory – and invasive, taken with swabs from the back of the throat – for all Olympians, locked in a bubble of closely monitored health restrictions to prevent the spread of infection. The penalty for a positive test was possible quarantine and a missed competition, a terrible blow for winter athletes who often toil outside the limelight except every four years at the Games.
“Who knows where these tests go, who manages the results,” Kenworthy said. “It’s definitely in the back of the mind.”
“And there’s like all the cybersecurity stuff. It is concerning,” he told the AP.
Often athletes would simply turn a blind eye when asked questions about human rights, saying they were not qualified to speak on the issue or were focused on competition, and were squatting.
On Twitter, Dutch speed skater Sanne in ‘t Hof blocked, unblocked and then blocked again a Uyghur living in the Netherlands who posted critical comments about Olympians during what he called a Games “genocide”. Mirehmet Ablet shared a screenshot with the AP showing the skater banning her from her account, where she tweeted that she was “enjoying every second!” of his first Olympic Games. Ablet’s brother was arrested in 2017 in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang in far western China, and Ablet does not know where he is currently being held.
Other athletes also praised their experience in China. “Nothing short of amazing,” said Brittany Bowe, USA bronze medalist in speed skating.
Hoffman, who competed for the United States at the 2014 and 2018 Games, said internal politics within teams may also have deterred athletes from speaking critically. Coaches can bench athletes who attract unwanted attention and “there’s pressure from your teammates not to cause a distraction,” he said in a phone interview. Athletes whose self-confidence has been shaken by poor performance may also have felt like they had lost all platform.
“There’s a lot of very subtle pressure,” Hoffman said.
He expects some athletes not to be judgmental once home, so as not to disrespect the cheerful and helpful Games workers.
But he hopes others will speak when they return and that “we’ll have a choir”.
Feeling unmuzzled, some already are.
Returning to Sweden with his two gold medals in speed skating, Nils van der Poel told Aftonbladet newspaper that although he had “a very nice experience behind the scenes”, hosting the Games in China was “terrible “. It drew parallels with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany and Russia hosting the Sochi Olympics before taking over the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
“It is extremely irresponsible,” van der Poel said, “to give it to a country that violates human rights as clearly as the Chinese regime does.”
AP journalists Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Eddie Pells in Zhangjiakou and Paul Newberry in Beijing contributed. Follow Parisian AP journalist John Leicester on Twitter at https://twitter.com/johnleicester. More from AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics
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