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Quiet Diplomacy or Pandering? – IOC is in a China Quandary

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The Beijing Winter Olympics are expected to run from February 4 to 20. But in the lead-up to the event, the IOC faces criticism that it turns a blind eye to alleged human rights abuses in China. Photo: Reuters

By Michael Pavitt |

Should you need quiet diplomacy with an upcoming Olympic host to ascertain whether an athlete is safe?

I suspect that for the vast majority the answer to that is no, but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will have believed it notched up a win when it published images of a call between the organisation’s President Thomas Bach and Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai last week.

It would be fascinating to know whether the IOC expected to be commended for its release, rather than receiving a torrent of criticism.

Much of the criticism has centred on the absence of allegations made by Peng against former Chinese vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, which led to her absence from public view for several weeks, but elected to mention Bach’s dinner invitation to her at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

At the very least the decision to overlook the allegations in the statement surely undermines efforts the IOC has made on tackling abuse and harassment.

After all, a quote from Bach when launching an IOC toolkit in 2018 to strengthen athlete-safeguarding policies said the organisation “praises the athletes’ courage to speak out on incidents of harassment and abuse, and we support them in their action.”

Yet in this instance, the allegations have been glossed over by the same organisation.

Many have pointed to the upcoming Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics as the reason for the IOC’s reluctance to seek “quiet diplomacy” than risk a full cutting of ties as the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) has threatened to do so.

The IOC has been accused of actively supporting Chinese propaganda by being reassured over the safety of Peng, whereas the WTA, among others, have said the video call has not demonstrated that she is “free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference”.

The IOC has rallied around the idea of “quiet diplomacy.”

The IOC Athletes’ Commission typically approved of this stance. It was instructive that Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet was one of the first officials within the Olympic Movement to express concern over Peng’s safety, having seemingly been freed from the confines of being an IOC Athletes’ Commission member earlier this year.

In an interview this week, the IOC doyen Richard Pound claimed that the IOC has established that “quiet and discreet diplomacy gets you better than clashing cymbals”, adding “that’s not the way you deal with any country, certainly not with China.”

The comment seemed merely to underline the view held by many that the IOC is seeking to tiptoe around issues in the host nation.

The Peng case and IOC response also highlights a potential concern heading into the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games for athletes.

A National Olympic Committee official during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics expressed fears over the potential for a headstrong Winter Olympian to make a political protest or comment during the Games, given the rise in athlete activism in recent years.

Those concerns, I suspect, will have been amplified now, given the concern for Peng’s welfare following the allegations she made on social media.

The IOC knew what it signed up for when it awarded Beijing the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. Yet the IOC has failed to take a proactive stance when inevitable questions have been asked about the Games, deflecting when allegations over human rights violations of the Uyghur population, as well as Tibet and Hong Kong, are put to them.

The IOC has merely claimed it has responsibility for ensuring the Olympic Charter is respected regarding the Olympic Games, with Bach declaring that the organisation is “not a super-world government.”

It is difficult to swallow the idea that the IOC is on one hand presenting itself as effective at quiet diplomacy, yet on the other is helpless when it comes to raising human rights concerns.

Equally, the IOC has resisted comment on China claiming the importance of being politically neutral, but simultaneously presented itself as an instrumental party in establishing talks between the North and South Korea Governments around the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Bach would certainly want involvement in a peace process to be one of his key legacies of his time in office, yet you must wonder as to whether the IOC’s unwillingness to face issues surrounding Beijing 2022 will be a defining period in how his stewardship of the Olympic Movement will be remembered.

In his defence, Bach earlier this year called for Governments to live up to their responsibilities within their own remits, when questioned about China.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe was right in one sense earlier this week in his comments on China, when he labelled a diplomatic boycott of the Games as a “meaningless gesture.”

The IOC member told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that no Organising Committee would miss a minister, should they elect not to send Government officials to the Games.

Was much achieved by the British and United States Governments when they diplomatically boycotted the Sochi 2014 Paralympics by Western politicians after Russia’s entry into Crimea prior to the Games? Or when Britain elected against sending officials to the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup after the positioning of Sergei Skripal.

A diplomatic boycott seems likely from several nations for Beijing 2022, which is something of a token effort from Governments seeking a small public relations win. Particularly if you consider whether many Governments would or should be sending politicians to the Games anyway, given the COVID-19 situation and restrictions that will likely be in place.

The IOC has made itself an easy target for criticism regarding the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, but National Governments should surely take greater action against China if they oppose the superpower’s policies and human rights record.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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