Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the first Olympics with the participation of the People’s Republic of China. It’s a history that’s fraught with politics, tension and controversy. Today is no different than 70 years ago.
The official invitation to the Helsinki Games arrived just days before opening ceremony. Regardless, 40 athletes were dispatched to Europe, in time for one athlete to compete in swimming and the rest of the team to take part in closing ceremony.
It may have been an inauspicious debut on the field of play, but it also marked the first chapter in the saga of the twists and turns of the relationship between China and the Olympics.
While the band of athletes from post-revolution China didn’t figure into the competition, their presence was enough for the Republic of China –known today by most of the world as Taiwan- to pull out in protest of the two-China policy cobbled together by the IOC. Based in Taipei, the ROC was founded by nearly two dozen Olympic officials who fled to the island in the wake of the Chinese civil war (1927-1949).
The IOC could find no immediate answer to the standoff created by the attempt to include both Chinese Olympic bodies.
Mainland China refused to participate in the 1956 Games in Melbourne while the team from Taiwan, known then as Formosa, took part.
In 1957, just five years after joining the Olympic Movement, the PRC formally withdrew from the IOC as its ultimate protest over continued recognition of the NOC from Taiwan. Along with renouncing IOC membership, it severed ties with all international federations.
The unsatisfactory situation over China would linger for more than 20 years. In 1979, a new two-China policy was brokered that recognized the Chinese Olympic Committee based in Beijing. Chinese Taipei became the island’s officially recognized name in the IOC roster of NOCs. Chinese speedskaters competed in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid and a full team was dispatched to Los Angeles in 1984. The PRC was one of the nations that joined the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a time when Sino-Soviet relations were torn.
If only that marked the end of delicate questions involving the Olympics and China.
Less than ten years after the 1984 Games, Beijing was in a pitched battle for the 2000 Olympics. While five cities were in the race, the contest was clearly between Sydney and Beijing. But memories of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 were still fresh, and the bid was on the back foot in the closing days of the campaign over accusations that China violated human rights. It was a close vote at the 1993 IOC Session in Monaco, with Sydney triumphing 45 to 43 on the fourth round of voting.
Human rights issues were raised again in the Beijing bid for 2008, but more muted. China bid leaders suggested that the Olympics would lead to human rights improvements. Freedom of the press was pledged to be the rule for journalists covering the Games.
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch recognized the importance of bringing the Olympics to China and did what he could to bolster the bid. It took only two rounds of voting for Beijing to prevail with the vote taken at the 2001 IOC Session in Moscow in the final days of the Samaranch presidency.
While Beijing 2008 scored points for China as an international sports host, scrutiny over human rights has persisted. But even credible reports of mass incarceration of Uyghur Moslems in western China are not enough to dissuade the IOC from backing China as the host for other Olympics: the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing and the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing.
Still the unlikeliest of cities to be the first to hold both Summer and Winter Olympic Games, Beijing 2022 is a testament to China’s unabashed willingness to spend on sport when other potential hosts watch their treasuries more closely. Whether that generosity dims concerns over human rights, the IOC has managed to compartmentalize that issue. Internal politics of a nation are not the business of the IOC is the line from Lausanne.
The IOC may have stepped outside its self-imposed boundaries to assure all is well with tennis star Peng Shuai. Her accusations of sexual assault by a government minister are issues of human rights and are grievances she is entitled to raise. While the phone call between IOC President Thomas Bach and Peng last week did not venture into her allegations and treatment, Bach had no other reason to connect with the two-time Olympian who is still incommunicado in China.
While the IOC seems content to give China a pass on human rights in 2022, the U.S. and a handful other counties could launch what’s called a diplomatic boycott of the Games: athletes go, but government leaders would stay away.
Amid these dicey topics, there is increasing military tension over the question of Taiwan and the PRC that involves far more than the flags carried by Olympic delegations in February. It’s almost as if battle lines are being drawn by combatants ahead of hostilities.
It’s been a fitful 70 years for the Olympics and modern day China. May the motto of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics remind everyone to work “together for a shared future”.