International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has insisted that the organisation must remain politically neutral or future Olympic Games could not take place, as more countries have been chastised by China for diplomatically boycotting the Winter Olympics and Paralympics in Beijing early next year.
Speaking at a virtual press conference yesterday, Bach said: "If we were to start to take political sides, we would never get all the national committees to Olympic Games, this would be the politicisation of the Olympic Games, and this would be the end of the Olympic Games."
However, he also said it was the IOC’s responsibility to ensure that the human rights of participants and the press were respected in “everything related to the Olympics” and praised the boycotting nations for their continued support of competing athletes.
“We welcome the support for their Olympic team all these governments have been emphasising. This is giving the athletes certainty and this is what the IOC is about,” Bach said.
“The presence of government officials is a purely political decision by each government. You will hear the same comment from us for every political decision from any government. We have been concerned with the athletes. We welcome that they can participate and that they are supported by their national governments.
"The rest is politics and our political neutrality applies.”
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The US confirmed its expected diplomatic boycott of – but intention to still send and support athletes to – the upcoming games (which run from 4 February to 13 March next year) on Monday and has since been joined in this stance by Australia, New Zealand, the UK and, most recently, Canada.
Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, said when announcing his country's involvement: “Many partners around the world are extremely concerned by the repeated human rights violations by the Chinese government. That's why we are announcing today that we will not be sending any diplomatic representation to the Beijing Olympics.”
“We have been very clear over the past many years of our deep concerns around human rights violations and this is a continuation of us expressing our deep concerns.”
In response, a statement from the Chinese embassy in Canada read: “Based on ideological biases as well as lies and rumours, Canada and a handful of western countries have been flagrantly engaged in political manoeuvring, with the attempt to disrupt the smooth progress of the Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. Their clumsy performance can hardly find any support and is doomed to fail.”
In a news conference today, meanwhile, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin dismissed concerns about a “domino effect” of countries joining the boycott, saying: “On the contrary, most countries in the world have expressed support for the Beijing Winter Olympics.”
Nonetheless, he said that the US, Australia, the UK and Canada had “used the Olympics platform for political manipulation” and would “pay the price for their mistaken acts”.
France has said it will not join the boycott, with its education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer making the argument that: “Sports is a world in itself, which must be protected from political interference.”
As more and more countries opt to boycott the games in order to shine a spotlight on China's alleged actions, the country faces potential reputational, political and economic damage.
The allegations of human rights abuses are focused primarily on China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the Xinjiang region of the country, with the state accused of detaining them inside ‘re-education centres’, as well as presiding over their torture and deaths.
The ongoing case of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis player who disappeared from public view at the start of November after making allegations of sexual assault against Zhang Gaoli, a former vice-premier of China, has also brought the country’s human rights stance into sharp focus.
The IOC has said it is using “quiet diplomacy” where Peng is concerned, but it has been criticised by some for its approach – which contrasts to that of women's tennis' WTA – and for its release of a video with Peng call on 21 November that it said indicated her wellbeing.
Of that, Bach said yesterday: “We could not feel her being under pressure. It's very easy to have suspicions. Suspicions you can have always about everything.
“We have achieved so far with these talks what we could reasonably be expected to achieve.”