Olympic athletes, soccer World Cup stars question hosts’ human rights

The Beijing Winter Olympics are just three weeks away, but the focus is not on skiing or skateboarding. It has been on sportswashing.

That’s the term human rights activists use to describe the mutual embrace between international sport and authoritarian states such as China. Events such as the Olympics, they say, sweeten the image of a regime that has stamped out democracy in Hong Kong, condemned Muslim Uyghurs to “reeducation” camps, and clamped down on any sign of citizen dissent.

Why We Wrote This

Winter Olympics in Beijing and the soccer World Cup in Qatar will burnish the international image of human rights violators. Athletes are braving their wrath to speak out.

The ruling bodies in sport, such as soccer’s FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, are reluctant to raise their voices, but athletes themselves are beginning to speak up.

A U.S. skater, Timothy LeDuc, talked last week about what he called “horrifying human rights abuses” in China; English soccer players will get a briefing from Amnesty International before deciding whether to stage protests at November’s World Cup in Qatar, a notorious human rights offender; and Formula One star Lewis Hamilton said last month he did not “feel comfortable” racing in Saudi Arabia, where same-sex relationships are banned. He wore a rainbow-decorated helmet during his race.

These are baby steps, perhaps, but they are more than international sports bureaucrats have managed.

London

The 24th Winter Olympics are only three weeks away, but the focus is not on skiing or snowboarding. It’s been on sportswashing.

That’s the term human rights advocates use to criticize the mutual embrace uniting international sport and authoritarian states such as next month’s Olympics great number, China.

They argue that the Games, with their cuddly panda logo, will sweeten the image of a government that has snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong, condemned Muslim Uyghurs to “reeducation” camps, and tightened control over its citizens.

Why We Wrote This

Winter Olympics in Beijing and the soccer World Cup in Qatar will burnish the international image of human rights violators. Athletes are braving their wrath to speak out.

None of that is going to prevent the Games from going ahead. But the wider issue shows no signs of going away: whether international sporting organizations are allowing human rights violators to “refashion their images as glamorous sporting hosts,” in the words of a recent report by Human Rights Watch.

In fact, it’s likely to resurface again when the Gulf state of Qatar hosts soccer’s World Cup in November.

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