To Host the Olympics, It Helps to Be a Bit Oppressive

Comments Off on To Host the Olympics, It Helps to Be a Bit Oppressive

Originally published by The Wall Street Journal on July 31, 2015

Forget snow, mountains and earmuffs: The must-have for a 2022 Winter Olympic bid is a dodgy attitude about human rights. Hurray!

That, at least, is how critics see it (without the “hurray”).

On Friday the International Olympic Committee will pick the winner of the bid to host the Games. Only two candidates remain: Almaty, former capital of Kazakhstan, and Beijing, current capital of China. In addition to their interest in winter sports, the two countries share “extremely poor human-rights records,” according Human Rights Watch.

There are other concerns, too. Beijing is hardly a fresh-aired alpine retreat, while Almaty is untested as a host of a major world event. Initially there was a gaggle of European cities in the running: Stockholm, Oslo, Krakow and Lviv. But they dropped out because of a lack of public support. (Boston, you’re not alone.) 

That left a pair of countries with governments less easily swayed by public opinion. Nowadays—given how much hosting the Games can cost, and therefore upset, the taxpayer—that seems to be a crucial ingredient for an Olympic bid.

Beijing and Almaty have been pressing their cases in the lead-up to Friday’s vote. Former NBA star Yao Ming, China’s flag-bearer at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, has been fronting his country’s campaign. Success would make the city the first to stage both the winter and summer Games.

“It’s the right time, the perfect time for the Olympics to return to Beijing,” he said in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

State media also, of course, backs the bid. A report this week from the Xinhua News Agency, “Ordinary Chinese Wish Beijing Success in Winter Olympic Bid,” even presents a Tibetan making the case. The Games would help boost the development of winter sports in the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, it quotes 22-year-old Li Maocuo as saying. “Good luck for Beijing, and I will pray for my motherland,” she adds.

The plateau is 3,000 kilometers from Beijing, at least two days’ drive by car, and even longer on skis or by luge. The Chinese capital, which is making its first bid for the Winter Olympics, would host some events in town at 2008 Olympic venues such as the Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube, while alpine sports would be held in Zhangjiakou and Yanqing, northwest of the city.

China is building a high-speed rail link between Beijing and the mountain venues, which will cut travel time to around one hour. “Exactly 52.5 minutes is the travel time from Beijing to the competition venue,” Xinhua quoted the National Development and Reform Committee’s deputy director, Wang Xiaotao, as saying. “Of course it will take time to get on and off the train,” he added. It certainly will, especially if everyone is carrying skis.

Almaty has an advantage over Beijing on this point as its proposed venues are in a much more compact radius of 18 miles. It also has mountains and plenty of natural snow, both useful assets for a Winter Olympics. Even the city’s proposed Olympic slogan, “Keeping it Real,” appears to be a dig at its rival’s likely reliance on artificial snow.

Beijing isn’t deterred. It promises a “Joyful Rendezvous Upon Pure Ice and Snow.”

Activists say it won’t be joyful for everyone. President Xi Jinping—who came to power in 2013—has imposed restrictions on civil-society groups and intensified a campaign against dissent. In a recent high-profile episode, Chinese authorities detained and questioned dozens of human-rights lawyers.

In a letter to the IOC this week, Renee Xia, international director of the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said China’s “abysmal” human-rights conditions have deteriorated since the 2008 Olympics, with suppression of free expression and peaceful assembly and association.

“These problems are especially evident in the government’s escalating crackdown on anti-discrimination and labor-rights NGOs, on human-rights defenders (including lawyers), and often in deadly discriminatory suppression in the ethnic Tibetan and Uighur regions,” she wrote.

The sentiments are echoed in other letters from activists to the IOC, including one published on the website and signed by such prominent figures as human-rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng and dissident Hu Jia.

China defends its human-rights record, often arguing that individual rights sometimes have to be sacrificed for social stability, economic growth and the general greater good. It also counters criticism by countries such as the U.S. by calling them hypocrites.

As for Kazakhstan’s record, activists have criticized the government for restricting media and assembly and detaining its critics. Human Rights Watch last week issued a report that said a climate of intense homophobia remains in the country, though consensual same-sex conduct was decriminalized in 1998.

IOC members will cast their vote in a secret ballot in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. The victor will be determined by simple majority—though whichever city wins, it won’t mean an end to the wrangling and criticism.

One certainty: Asia’s grip on the Games will continue for three consecutive Olympics, with the 2018 and 2020 events already in the bag for Pyeongchang in South Korea and Tokyo, respectively.


Back to Top