Nancy Gillen

It is understandable that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is likely only focusing on one thing right now.

All brainpower, resources and prayers will be directed towards Tokyo 2020, and ensuring competition can happen safely next year. The coronavirus pandemic is still throwing a large shadow of doubt on the successful staging of the Olympics and Paralympics, but the IOC and Tokyo 2020 have no choice but to assume they will happen.

In previous months, both organisations have worked feverishly through a number of logistical problems, including venues, tickets and funding. The cost of the Games has of course spiralled, and subsequently the cancellation of Tokyo 2020 could be catastrophic.

IOC members can only hope that come July 23 2021, they will be in the Japanese capital watching an Opening Ceremony, albeit one that may be drastically scaled down. If the following two weeks go smoothly, they will be able to breathe a sigh of relief and perhaps permit themselves a self-congratulatory moment.

This sense of relief may be short-lived. Just six months later, the Winter Olympics and Paralympics go to Beijing, an event which is already causing headaches. The IOC will subsequently have little respite after the stresses of Tokyo 2020. 

Coronavirus will of course be an issue, having originated in China. The Government’s recent decision to cancel all remaining international events in the country for 2020 shows it is still grappling with the pandemic, even though the number of cases are reportedly under control.

Preparations for Beijing 2022 remain on track, however, and the Chinese Government’s commitment to staging the Games was shown when it made this year's test events an exception to the ban on international competitions. The IOC can be assured that China is giving priority to the Olympics and Paralympics.

The IOC has been working hard on the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games, taking place next year in Tokyo ©Getty Images
The IOC has been working hard on the postponed Olympic and Paralympic Games, taking place next year in Tokyo ©Getty Images

Perhaps more worrying for the IOC is the rising tension between China and the United States. 

Just this week, the US sanctioned a number of Chinese officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. This had been coming since May, when the House of Representatives passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act over the treatment of ethnic minority groups in the Chinese north-west.

The abuses reportedly include "mass arbitrary detention and severe physical abuse, among other serious abuses targeting Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim population indigenous to Xinjiang, and other ethnic minorities in the region."  

China’s alleged abuse of the Uyghur population has been linked by American politicians to the upcoming Winter Olympics.  

Gary Bauer, who sits on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, called for the US Government to refuse to send officials to Beijing 2022.

"We urge the administration to keep up the pressure by refusing to send US officials to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing unless the Communist Chinese Government ceases its war on faith," he said.

Earlier this year, Senator Rick Scott introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on the IOC to "rebid the 2022 Winter Olympics" if China did not demonstrate "significant progress in securing fundamental human rights" by next January. Congressman Mike Gallagher has also branded the Games as the "2022 Concentration Camp Olympics."

A US boycott of Beijing 2022 does not seem likely. There was a similar build-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in the Chinese capital. Back then, 106 US lawmakers circulated a letter calling for a boycott of the Games because of China's support of the Sudanese regime and the forced relocation of 300,000 Chinese residents.

US Senator Rick Scott has been vocal in calling on the IOC to take the 2022 Winter Olympic Games off Beijing ©Getty Images
US Senator Rick Scott has been vocal in calling on the IOC to take the 2022 Winter Olympic Games off Beijing ©Getty Images

In the end, a full-strength American team was sent to Beijing 2008, and despite the omission of a few key names, the Opening Ceremony was attended by more than 105 heads of state and Government.

It is likely that the same will happen for Beijing 2022. The IOC may take a blow to its reputation, but it will be confident of the Games taking place with all countries in attendance. 

There is still the potential for embarrassment for the IOC, however, especially once competition is underway.

It is not just the pandemic that has been a source of stress for the IOC over the last few months. The emphatic re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement has been an unexpected thorn in the side of the organisation. 

With numerous athletes finding their voices and using their platforms in an unprecedented way, the IOC’s Rule 50 has come under intense scrutiny. Allegedly designed to protect the neutrality of sport and the Olympic Movement, Rule 50 states "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Organisations such as the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes' Advisory Council, The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport and Global Athlete have all called for the abolition or amendment of the rule.

IOC President Thomas Bach has conceded Rule 50 could indeed be reviewed as part of a consultation process due to be conducted by the IOC Athletes Commission, while the International Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Council is set to consult with Para-athletes on the matter.

Athletes have become increasingly vocal over issues such as racism ©Getty Images
Athletes have become increasingly vocal over issues such as racism ©Getty Images

Even if these discussions do not end with the easing of Rule 50, numerous athletes have insinuated it will not stop them from protesting what they believe to be right. The Black Lives Matter movement has unleashed a determination in many athletes which IOC bureaucracy is unlikely to curb.

This is the atmosphere that Tokyo 2020 may take place in, and depending on the outcome of events such as the American election, podium protests may be prevalent. In Tokyo, however, protests are unlikely to be directed towards the hosts themselves. They will instead focus on social issues such as racism.

The situation will be completely different in Beijing. Many athletes may travel to China with the intention of protesting about the country’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, the Uyghur population in particular. In a place which is known for repression and censorship, such protests would not go down well. 

Subsequently, the IOC will have to keep one eye on Beijing 2022 when deliberating over Rule 50. It will be concerned about appearing too generous, thus paving the way for potential embarrassment in two years time. 

But how can the IOC pick and choose? Will it allow anti-racism protests but punish protests on behalf of the Uyghur Muslims? Both are moral issues and the IOC would appear hypocritical if one was permitted but not the other. This will be the cause of a major headache for Bach and the like. 

The IOC is currently facing one of the biggest challenges in Olympic history. The Games have never been postponed, and there is still the threat of all-out cancellation. 

Unfortunately for the IOC, once the worries of Tokyo 2020 are finally out of the way, those concerning Beijing 2022 will become more pressing. The issues of coronavirus and podium protests will not fade away but must be tackled once again, just in a different context.