In IOC’s “quiet diplomacy”, critics see whitewashing of China’s actions

The International Olympic Committee was under siege.

Three-time Olympian from China Peng Shuai had not heard from it for weeks after making allegations of sexual abuse against a former senior politician, a man who had played a central role in preparations for the upcoming Winter Games in Beijing.

Initially silent on the disappearance of Peng, a female tennis star, Olympic officials were now faced with a growing global chorus of concerns. The WTA Tour, through its CEO, demanded answers and an investigation. Tennis stars such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka – along with human rights groups, politicians and everyday fans – were using social media to ask #WhereIsPengShuai? Media organizations were flooding the Internet with media coverage.

Cornered by criticism, the IOC finally responded. This, Olympic officials insisted, was not a time for public statements but for “quiet diplomacy”.

For the organization’s many critics, the cautious and cautious language – seen more as an attempt to explain his silence rather than ensuring Peng’s safety – was just the latest proof that the IOC will not take any action that could upset the Chinese government, its partner for the Winter Olympics which are only a few months away.

The response sparked condemnation and frustration from the public behind the scenes of the Olympic movement.

“The IOC must not be complicit in protecting the regime and its capture for Chinese propaganda purposes,” said Maximilian Klein, head of international relations for Athleten Deutschland, a representative group of German athletes.

Many National Olympic Committees, facing pressure at home to speak out more forcefully on China’s human rights record, are now complaining about what they see as a failure of the country’s leadership. CIO. Some fear that the reluctance of Olympic leaders to challenge or pressure China has exposed them and their athletes to possible retaliation during the Games.

“In the absence of them to say something, it puts pressure on others to do it,” said a national Olympic committee official, who declined to be cited by name for fear of making it worse an uncomfortable situation. “If we start to be critical, all of a sudden it becomes more political if a nation starts to criticize China.”

“It is we who must keep our heads down”, added the official, “not the IOC”.

The efforts of senior Olympic officials to clarify Peng’s status have done little to alleviate the crisis of confidence. On Sunday, the IOC released an image of a video call involving Peng and IOC President Thomas Bach. The call was the first known contact between the tennis player and a Western sports official since she went public with her sexual assault allegations, and since China, which once praised her successes in state media , quickly deleted them and then decided to delete all mention of his accusation.

Rather than allay concerns, the call only raised more questions about the IOC’s relationship with the Chinese government.

The IOC statement accompanying the image provided few details of what had been discussed during the 30-minute meeting with Peng, 35, and it clearly avoided referring to the sexual assault allegations against Zhang Gaoli, a former Chinese Vice Premier who retired in 2018. Zhang was Vice Premier when Beijing won the 2015 Winter Olympics, and he headed an organizing committee that oversaw the preparations. In 2016, he met Bach during a visit to China.

China’s Peng Shuai serves in a training session ahead of the Australian Open in 2019. | AFP-JIJI

In the only image released by the IOC, Peng is smiling broadly in a room filled with plush toys, including mascots from previous Olympics. The IOC statement says Bach ended the call by suggesting that he and Peng try to meet for dinner when he arrives in Beijing in January. The committee did not release any audio or transcripts of what Peng said in his own words or suggest that Bach or anyone else asked him about his allegations of sexual assault.

“Simply whitewash it all -” Nothing to see here! “- is generally problematic,” said Sarah Cook, research director for China at Freedom House, a Washington, DC-based rights organization, referring to the IOC’s handling of the case and its relationship to it. general with the Olympic hosts. “Working with the Chinese government to take away people’s rights is unlike anything that has been done before.”

Richard Pound, a Canadian lawyer and longest-serving IOC member, defended the organization’s tactics – and lashed out at its critics – in an interview last week.

“What the IOC has established is that low-key, low-key diplomacy makes you better than clashing cymbals,” Pound said. “It’s not the way you deal with any country, certainly not with China.”

It is not known how Bach managed to organize a call with Peng when the WTA Tour and others fell through, although the presence on call of IOC member from China, Li Lingwei, offered a tantalizing clue. .

“The IOC has moved from silence about Beijing’s catastrophic human rights record to active collaboration with Chinese authorities to undermine free speech and ignore alleged sexual assaults,” said Yaqiu Wang, senior researcher on the China to Human Rights Watch. “The IOC seems to privilege its relationship with a major human rights violator to the detriment of the rights and safety of Olympic athletes.”

Teng Biao, a lawyer and prominent human rights activist who was arrested in 2008 for criticizing China’s preparations for this year’s Summer Olympics, said it was illogical that Peng herself organized a call with Bach. In a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey, where he now lives in exile, Teng suggested that authorities in Beijing had arranged the call with Bach rather than risking a call between Peng and a critic such as the CEO. of the WTA Tour Steve Simon, who publicly urged China to allow Peng to move and speak freely.

Regarding the Beijing Olympics, Teng said, “The IOC and Bach are not neutral.

For Bach, a pragmatist, there was little room for maneuver once China secured the rights to host the 2022 Winter Games six years ago, amid a shortage of suitable candidate cities. The Olympics generate 91% of the organization’s revenue, so the IOC has long avoided doing anything that could endanger those billions of dollars in revenue.

“Thomas Bach is above all about protecting the Olympic Games,” said Adam Pengilly, a former IOC member, explaining how Bach, a former gold medal fencer, has acted to secure the future of the Games since his accession to the Olympic Games. presidency in 2013.

During his tenure, crucial long-term television deals were made and the rules changed to nominate hosts Paris and Los Angeles for the next two Olympics without competition. Then a small committee was empowered to streamline the process even further, effectively hosting the 2032 Summer Games in Brisbane, Australia, the committee head’s home country, before any other city could bid.

“He would justify it by saying, ‘I think this is the best way to protect the Olympics,'” Pengilly said of Bach. “When that’s your starting point, you find yourself in trouble when things like this happen. “

The IOC has struggled for years with thorny questions about China’s human rights record. In 2008, when Beijing hosted the Summer Games, the IOC adopted a public relations posture that the closer scrutiny brought by the Olympics would ultimately lead to positive changes in Chinese society.

Tibetan activists stand outside the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee to protest the Beijing Winter Games on Friday in Lausanne, Switzerland.  |  AFP-JIJI
Tibetan activists stand outside the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee to protest the Beijing Winter Games on Friday in Lausanne, Switzerland. | AFP-JIJI

Yet since then the opposite has happened. While in 2008 the focus was largely on China’s policy in Tibet, its government is now also criticized for its crackdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous territory, and its crackdown in the region. Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in a campaign the United States has called genocidal.

Considered complicit in human rights abuses, the IOC, which once suggested it could change China by giving it the Games, more recently said it could only control what was happening inside of the Olympic bubble.

“The International Olympic Committee, as a civilian non-governmental organization, is strictly politically neutral at all times,” Bach wrote last year in a column published by The Guardian. “Neither the attribution of the Games nor the participation is a political judgment concerning the host country.

Christophe Dubi, the top IOC official responsible for the Olympics, insisted that human rights clauses were included in his contract with Beijing, although Peng’s case appears to violate that agreement.

“What’s outside the contract is another story, but we act where we have a contract and there we are very clear,” Dubi told The New York Times this week.

“I follow what’s going on,” Dubi added, “and am I happy that the IOC is being criticized? No, I’m not happy that the IOC is being criticized. I am not happy when I hear and read some stories.

Dubi insisted that no topics would be off limits to media attending and covering the Games, but it is not clear whether there will be answers. When Chinese authorities were pressed about Peng, they initially claimed to know nothing as the story garnered worldwide attention and, like the IOC, the Chinese government still has not commented on the allegations. sexual assault.

The Olympic committee’s light response to them, however, may have served to ensure that nothing will derail the final push to the Opening Ceremony in Beijing in less than 100 days.

“It does not interfere with anything that I do at my level to organize the Games,” Dubi said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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