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Olympic Athletes Speak Out


The 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing concluded on February 20, 2022, under a cloud of controversy highlighting the inappropriateness of awarding a country with an abysmal human rights record the honor of hosting an event meant to celebrate human dignity.

In the lead-up to the Games, as if to validate the concerns—expressed in protest statements from civil society groups; diplomatic boycotts by governments (including the U.S., UK, Japan, Australia, and Denmark); and critical commentaries from diverse sectors—a Chinese official explicitly warned athletes that, while in China, they would not be free to express themselves and that there would be “certain punishment” for behavior or speech “against the Chinese laws and regulations.”

While athletes did not speak out when they were in China, many did make their voices heard before and after the Games.  As the quotes collected by HRIC show: athletes are indeed concerned about the International Olympic Committee’s host-city decision; serious human rights abuses in China, including of Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims; the security of athletes such as the tennis champion Peng Shuai who was essentially disappeared by the authorities after she alleged sexual coercion by a former high-level government official; and the need for greater change.

One of the athletes, Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel, donated one of his two gold medals to the Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who is imprisoned in China (see below).

Evan Bates

U.S., figure skater, 4X Olympian (2010, 2014, 2018, 2022)
Silver, team, 2022 Winter Olympics
(Photo by David W. Carmichael.)

“[I]f you’re asking what’s happening in China regarding the Muslims, it’s terrible, it’s awful. . . . I have no problems in speaking for the athletes in saying what’s happening there is terrible. We’re human beings too and when we read and hear about the things that are happening there, we absolutely hate that. We hate what’s going on there.”

October 19, 2021, Source

Nathan Chen

U.S., figure skater, 2X Olympian (2018, 2022)
Gold, men’s single figure skating; silver, team, 2022 Winter Olympics
(Photo by David W. Carmichael.)

“I think for a greater change to occur [in China] there must be a power that is beyond the Olympics. It has to be change at a remarkable scale. . . . However, the fact that people are talking about this issue, and the Olympics are bringing it to light is already a step in the right direction.”

October 19, 2021, Source

Madison Chock

U.S., figure skater, 3X Olympian (2014, 2018, 2022)
ilver, team, 2022 Winter Olympics
(Photo by David W. Carmichael.)

“Just because something terrible has happened doesn’t mean everyone (in China) supports what is going on or believes that’s the right thing to do.”

October 19, 2021, Source

Noah Hoffman

U.S., cross-country skier, 2X Olympian (2014, 2018)
(Photo by Frankie Fouganthin.)

“[The IOC has] shown that their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supersedes their care for athletes. They have prioritised that relationship over Peng Shuai’s safety. And that’s emblematic of what they’ve done in general, by awarding the games to Beijing. . . .

“Not only that, but the athletes’ safety is at stake. We have the organising committee in Beijing threatening to punish any athlete that speaks out, but Chinese law when it comes to speech is extremely opaque. We don’t have the IOC defending the athletes’ right to speak out in that situation and what we’ve seen is that they won’t defend athletes.”

February 4, 2022, Source

Gus Kenworthy

U.S./G.B., freestyle skier, 3X Olympian (2014, 2018, 2022)
(Photo by Ben P. L.)

“I don't think that China should be allowed to host. I don't think that any nation should be allowed to host the Olympics, this gathering point of the world, with everyone in the world fixated on you and pouring in money and attention, if you have atrocious human rights stances.

“I feel like we are all given a voice and it's important to use it. . . .

“I think that the IOC has the power to create change in those countries for the better and could easily do that.”

February 3, 2022, Source

Timothy LeDuc

U.S., pairs skater, 1X Olympian (2022)
(Photo by David W. Carmichael.)

“What I can say is we absolutely acknowledge the horrifying things that we've seen happening to the Uyghurs. I read somewhere the other day that it's the largest number of people held in internment and labor camps since World War II. I mean, these are horrifying human rights abuses that we're seeing happening.”

January 9, 2022, Source

Felix Loch

Germany, luge, 4X Olympian (2010, 2014, 2018, 2022)
(Photo by Sandro Halank.)

“Man hätte Olympia nicht nach Peking geben dürfen.” (“You shouldn’t have given the Olympics to Beijing.”)

January 13, 2022, Source

Adam Rippon

U.S., figure skater, 1X Olympian (2018)
(Photo by Ted Eytan.)

"[Selecting China as host] makes me think of being rewarded for bad behaviour.

"Always the hope is that (the Olympics) helps better the hosting nation as well, but I do agree that in light of all of the human rights violations in China, it does make you question why were they still allowed to host these Games?"

February 4, 2022, Source

Nils van der Poel

Sweden, speed skater, 2X Olympian (2018, 2022)
Gold, 5000 meters; gold, 10000 meters, 2022 Winter Olympics
(Photo by Frankie Fouganthin.)

“I think it is extremely irresponsible to give [the Olympics] to a country that violates human rights as blatantly as the Chinese regime is doing.”

February 16, 2022, Source

NOTE: After the Games, Van der Poel donated one of his gold medals to Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, who is imprisoned in China for allegedly “illegally providing intelligence overseas” and who had been originally disappeared in late 2015 after publishing books that were critical of the Chinese government. Van der Poel told a reporter:

“I want human rights abuses in China to be reduced and Gui Minhai to be released. It is a lot to ask, but it is the only reasonable thing to wish for. . . .

“I do not speak for all Olympians, but I and my friends in sports have spent our lives striving for the top and the Chinese government uses our dreams as a political weapon to legitimize its regime. It became personal for me and I felt used.”

February 25, 2022, Source, Source

Vincent Zhou

U.S., figure skater, 2X Olympian (2018, 2022)
silver, team, 2022 Winter Olympics
(Photo by David W. Carmichael.)

“As athletes, we still retain our humanity. We heard what Evan [Bates] said. We echo his sentiment.”

October 19, 2021, Source

错误 | Human Rights in China 中国人权 | HRIC