Chinese Olympians balance politics and sport – The Diplomat

The stakes for Chinese Olympians have never been higher than at Beijing 2022. Although Chinese President Xi Jinping States he “doesn’t care” how many gold medals China has won at the Winter Olympics, behind the scenes these athletes are under enormous pressure. The burden of achieving China’s Olympic goals of to become a “winter sports powerhouse” and the ever-present need to cultivate national pride among the Chinese people have turned Beijing 2022 into a serious geopolitical event amid international backlash.

“The Olympics reveal a lot right now,” Michael Sobolik, a researcher in Indo-Pacific studies at the American Foreign Policy Council, told The Diplomat. “It reveals that the party does not believe it needs to apologize or explain itself to anyone and have the assistance of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to adopt this position.”

Equally telling is the plight of Chinese athletes caught in the crossfire of great power politics. With regard to human rights and diplomatic boycotts swirl around Beijing 2022, the athletes have a routine even more intense than any athletic feat ahead of them: they must simultaneously navigate fierce online nationalism and goals of corporate sponsors, and avoid the increasingly intense political melee surrounding the Games – while going for the gold.

Appeasing Chinese netizens can have serious financial implications for athletes. Yang Qian, an Olympic air rifle gold medalist, wore a yellow duck pin during her events at Tokyo 2020 which sets off domestic consumer enthusiasm. His profile has since won its partnerships with Western brands like Estée Lauder.

Even Olympians who don’t win gold can get paid. Su Bingtian, sixth in the 100m final at Tokyo 2020, won the nickname “China’s pride” and following his performance was dubbed a brand ambassador for nine Chinese brands, including consumer electronics giant Xiaomi.

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Chinese athletes often come from difficult backgrounds and sacrifice traditional educational opportunities to compete in the sport system. As such, Olympic stardom represents their best chance for a comfortable life. Quan Hongchan, the youngest Chinese medalist at Tokyo 2020, has drawn attention for taking up diving to pay her mother’s medical bills. She later won a deal with Chinese sports brand Xtep worth over $1.5 million. And because of his Olympic victory, his heartfelt story garnered donations from Internet users.

But there’s a dark side to the netizens’ brilliant rewards. When online users express their dissatisfaction with Chinese athletes’ performances, backgrounds or political comments, their dreams can be thwarted in an instant. As a precaution, the Chinese athletes chose to quietly nod to netizens’ sentiment regarding Olympic performance issues. When ping pong duo Liu Shiwen and Xu Xin lost to Japan in the final round of Tokyo 2020, the pair Published a tearful apology for “bringing the team down”, fearing personal consequences.

In a system where unsuccessful athletes are shunned and athletes rely on sponsorship income to help support their families, the implications of deviating from Beijing’s policy guidelines are also far-reaching. . Yang Qian was castigated by nationalist Weibo users for posting pictures of Nike gear, a brand that has pledged to stop using Xinjiang cotton because of Uyghur forced labor. National athlete sponsors like Xtep and Xiaomi, which have both benefited forced labor from Xinjiang and even went as far as Support her, are probably particularly sensitive to any public comment on the matter.

“As for individual athletes, their path from where they are to even greater wealth will be through echoing party rhetoric on issues like Xinjiang,” Sobolik added. “It will be a test of national pride and patriotism to echo the party’s talking points, and the economic incentives are strong to do so.”

These performances and political pressures apply even to naturalized Chinese athletes. At Beijing 2022, Internet users castigated American-born Chinese Olympian Zhu Yi for her final spot in the team figure skating event, with some netizens calling Zhu a national “disgrace” and an “amateur”.

At the other end of the spectrum, American-born Chinese Olympian Eileen Gu avoid media appearances in recent months, avoiding controversial topics such as human rights abuses — potentially because millions of sponsorship dollars were at stake. When pressed, Gu echoes Chinese Communist Party (CCP) talking points on the safety of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a senior party official of sexual assault last November. Yet those politically correct comments, combined with his Beijing 2022 gold medal and popular persona, have won Gu widespread praise from Chinese netizens.

Athletes are also subject to surveillance and image management by the CCP itself. When Reuters covered Chinese weightlifter Hou Zhihui’s gold medal with “ugly photos” at Tokyo 2020, government officials tweeted their resentment. Meanwhile, gold medal-winning cyclists Bao Shanju and Zhong Tianshi donned Mao Zedong pins during their medal ceremony last summer – a direct violation of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits political propaganda – and n have only met a simple Warning of the IOC while Chinese officials did not condemn the political display.

For a nation that has opposite the “politicization of sport” ahead of Beijing 2022, China used the Winter Games to energize its own national program, without excluding its bolder elements. The Global Times used Beijing 2022 as a platform to to attract attention to winter sports tourism in Xinjiang and claiming that skiing originated in the region. Earlier this month, People’s Liberation Army commander Qi Fabao, who was injured in the 2020 Galwan Valley border clashes with India, carries the Olympic torch.

Xi Jinping also leveraged Beijing 2022 to to receive its first foreign leaders for the first time in nearly two years, including Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Ukraine crisis.

But Uyghur Olympian Dinigeer Yilamujiang is arguably the most controversial of Beijing’s political activities during the Games. lighting the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony amid international concern over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, where experts estimate around 1 million Uyghurs have been forced into involuntary detention. Chinese officials state that its policies in Xinjiang are aimed at “countering violent terrorism and separatism” and denying any violation of human rights.

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“The most obvious politicization, of course, was for a Uyghur athlete to light the torch,” said Bonnie Glick, director of Purdue University’s Center for Tech Diplomacy. “It’s a purely cynical move and shouldn’t have fooled anyone.”

This is not the first time that Beijing has sent Uyghurs to represent China at the Olympics. At Beijing 2008, Kamaltürk Yalqun, then a student, carried the Olympic flame as part of his ceremonial journey. While Yalqun noted he was proud to represent China at the time, he has since fled to the United States while his father was detained and arrested in 2015 for alleged political subversion. Another Uyghur torchbearer, Adil Abdurehim, is would have serving a 14-year prison sentence for watching counter-revolutionary videos.

For Yilamujiang, the consequences of diverging from the party line would be far more serious than the loss of sponsorship dollars. If she were to speak against the grain of the CCP’s position on her home region, Yilamujiang could face punishment similar to that of Yalqun’s father or Abdurehim. His silence is therefore “another example of the party controlling the individual athlete and, on a meta level, controlling the expression of individuals inside the country,” Sobolik said of Yilamujiang’s situation.

After finishing 43rd in the women’s 15km skiathlon, Yilamujiang dodged media interviews and faded away from the public spotlight until his next race on February 10. She was subsequently fall by Team China in its last event.

Also, for the first time, Tibetan athletes represent China on the Olympic stage, but we shouldn’t expect them to talk about Tibetan issues. These athletes will have no choice but to avoid sensitive issues, even those concerning human rights violations occurring in their clean house Region.

While some American athletes have expressed “conflicting feelings” on participation in the Games, Chinese athletes remain silent at the risk of facing online unpopularity (including coordinated attack campaigns on social media), loss of sponsorship or, at worst, serious political consequences. With intensified personal monitoring In the Olympic bubble, the ferocious fervor of netizens and the narrative sensibility of the Chinese government, all coalesced around Beijing 2022, the Winter Games themselves will not be the only tough challenge Chinese athletes will face. They will also have to deal with the mental pressure of walking a thin line between sporting success and political correctness.

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