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The Genocide Games: Olympic Protests

Protestors at the Olympic Lighting Ceremony in Athens, Greece

By Shari Gordnier

Protest requires individuals to acknowledge that what is happening around them is unacceptable and push for change. It’s a reclamation of power. It requires determination. It requires courage. The Olympic Charter defines Olympism, the spirit that the Games are meant to evoke and champion as, “Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of a good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” The act of protesting against an authoritarian government’s genocide of its own people is well in line with the ideals of Olympism.

Despite the ideal of social responsibility and respect for universal ethical principles, the Olympics have a tumultuous relationship with athlete protests. Current IOC President Thomas Bach has stated that “Our [the IOC’s] political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.” This stance is in line with Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which dictates, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” which has been on the books since 1975. The most well-known instance of athletes protesting during the Games was during the 1968 Mexico City Games where Tommie Smith and John Carlos, American sprinters, accepted their medals barefoot and listened to the anthem with bowed heads and a raised fist to protest the treatment of Black people worldwide.

Protesting at the Olympic games is not without risk or consequence. Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa took silver in the men’s marathon at the 2016 Rio Games. As he crossed the finish line he raised his arms and crossed his wrists emulating being shackled to protest the treatment of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. After his protest, Lilesa was not able to return home for fear of being killed or imprisoned until 2018 when reforms, instituted by Prime Minister Abiy, allowed him to feel safe in returning home.

Concerns about athlete protests during the 2022 Winter Games have grown since the close of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC loosened its protest rules allowing for athletes to make symbolic gestures before competitions (think raised fists or taking a knee) but remained firm on its stance that the medal stand is not a place for protest. While athletes may not face repercussions from the IOC for protests prior to competition, a spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stated that “Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.” This statement is especially concerning given the disappearance of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis star, in November after she claimed a member of the CCP sexually assaulted her. Critics of the CCP regularly face persecution and imprisonment in China, and while the CCP is unlikely to risk the international backlash for severely punishing a foreign athlete, various human rights organizations are warning athletes against protesting at the games.

While it remains to be seen whether the CCP will have to deal with protests against its human rights abuses and genocidal practices during the games, there has been no shortage of protests leading up to their start. The lighting of the Olympic torch at the Olympia in November was met with protestors brandishing a banner that read “No Genocide Games.” Additional protests were staged around the world including in London, Belgium, and Jakarta, all calling for action to be taken against China for its genocide of the Uyghur people and using the Olympics as a platform to amplify their voice. These people are embodying the spirit of Olympism.

Shari Gordnier is an Early Warning Analyst at Genocide Watch

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch

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