Michael Pavitt

I found myself nodding in rare agreement with Conservative politician Sir Iain Duncan Smith earlier this week, when he acknowledged there was only a "very minimal" chance the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will move the 2022 Winter Olympics Games from Beijing.

In fact, I would say there was no chance the IOC will move the Games from the Chinese capital, particularly at the urging of Western politicians.

Sir Iain tweeted that UK Government "should lobby the IOC to boycott the Winter Olympics and change the venue".

He accused China of being "dictatorial, aggressive and intolerant", adding that the country’s Government’s "horrific treatment of Hong Kongers and the Uyghur Muslims violates every human rights law in the book".

Sir Iain has joined colleagues in the United States in calling for action related to Beijing 2022 on human rights grounds, with Florida Senator Rick Scott leading the charge.

Scott last week claimed he had sent a letter to the IOC requesting a meeting with the organisation’s President Thomas Bach over alleged human-rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims and people in Hong Kong.

There are justifiable concerns over the situation in Hong Kong and treatment of Uyghur Muslims, which has been highlighted in recent weeks and months.

A cynic might suggest that there is more to the recent desire of politicians to see action taken against China.

An interview given by Sir Iain to talkRadio made this clear, with the interview initially focusing on the Hong Kong and Uyghur human rights situation, before touching on China’s alleged bullying of Australia over coronavirus, trade and Huawei.

The UK last month blocked Huawei from involvement in its 5G mobile networks, with the US having already banned its companies from doing business with the Chinese multinational technology firm over security concerns.

Politician Sir Iain Duncan Smith has called for the UK Government to take a strong stance regarding Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images
Politician Sir Iain Duncan Smith has called for the UK Government to take a strong stance regarding Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

Sir Iain is also a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which features politicians from 16 countries and two representatives from the European Parliament.

The group has vowed to reform how democratic countries approach China, with its activities centred on safeguarding international rules-based order, upholding human rights, promoting trade fairness, strengthening security and protecting national integrity.

I suggest calls from politicians to move the Olympics for human rights reasons gets somewhat blurred when you add other these other factors into the mix.

The IOC have been here before and are accustomed to responding to criticism from Western politicians.

I don’t doubt either that both Britain and the US will be represented by teams at the Games in Beijing, coronavirus permitting.

The suggestion from Sir Iain that the Government should have nothing to do with the Games seems the most likely scenario, akin to when dignitaries from both countries opted not to attend the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi over Russia’s involvement in Crimea.

Politicians from Britain and members of the Royal Family also boycotted the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia in protest that a Russian-made nerve agent was used on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia while they were living in the United Kingdom. 

It seems increasingly clear, though, that the build-up to Beijing 2022 is going to be a political and uncomfortable one for the IOC, who will undoubtedly face more questions regarding China’s human rights.

The IOC responded with a lengthy statement last week when contacted by insidethegames, following a formal complaint being made by the World Uyghur Congress to the IOC Ethics Commission, citing "verifiable evidence of genocide and crimes against humanity taking place" against Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims in China.

Accompanied by the usual sentiments how the Olympics brings the world together and is a symbol of unity in a fragile world, the message appeared to offer a slight indication that the IOC is not happy about the situation in China.

The IOC said that awarding the Games to a National Olympic Committee "does not mean the IOC agrees with the political structure, social circumstances or human rights standards in its country".

The organisation added that the Beijing 2022 Evaluation Commission has raised human rights issues with national and local authorities and has "received assurances that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be respected in the context of the Games".

The statement was probably the strongest offering the IOC has offered on the situation in China to date. Although the view expressed is about as soft a criticism as one could reasonably expect.

The build-up to Beijing 2022 looks increasingly political ©Getty Images
The build-up to Beijing 2022 looks increasingly political ©Getty Images

The IOC, rightly or wrongly, appears unlikely to deliver a public dressing down of China, despite the concerns of many over the situation in Hong Kong and treatment of Uyghur Muslims.

I understand that when you exist to organise a multi-sport Games, you are going to take whatever options you get. Hence the IOC has ended up in Beijing, while the European Games has travelled from Azerbaijan to Belarus and now on to Poland.

Amnesty International seemed to acknowledge that fact when I asked for their thoughts on the 2030 Asian Games bid race between Qatar and Saudi Arabia earlier this year, two countries the organisation has heavily criticised on human rights grounds.

Rather than calling for the event to simply cancelled, the organisation called for the Olympic Council of Asia to ensure all bids are assessed to identify potential risks and that they should use the Games to bolster and defend human rights in host countries.

I would argue this point is where the IOC rhetoric falls short regarding Beijing 2022.

The organisation says it is "responsible for ensuring the respect of the Olympic Charter with regard to the Olympic Games and takes this responsibility very seriously" and does not have the "mandate nor the capability to change the laws or the political system".

The latter point is true, but questions can be asked as to whether the IOC should be satisfied with merely ensuring human rights are followed regarding the Olympic Games.

The IOC referring to its mandate and the Olympic Charter will not insulate the organisation from criticism, particularly given its sentiments about supporting unity in diversity and solidarity.

As such, the IOC should take a more active role and stance on the issues if it truly believes in its "mission". 

Granted this will be a difficult challenge as it seeks not to butt heads with its host.

Western politicians may be using the Winter Olympics as part of wider grievances with China, but the human rights situation is one that is going to be repeatedly aired in the build-up to the Games.

The IOC is going to need to develop a more convincing answer.