The International Olympic Committee and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently announced that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be postponed to July 2021. This is the first time the games have been postponed during peacetime in the 124-year history of the modern Olympic movement. Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, athletes around the world had asked the IOC to postpone the games so that they would not be forced to choose between their health and their sport.
However, in 2022, athletes and the IOC will face another dilemma — this time with the Winter Olympics in Beijing. According to numerous reports, the Chinese government has detained more than 1 million Uighur and other Muslims in concentration camps. Individuals have been sent to the camps for wearing long beards, refusing alcohol, or other behaviors that Chinese authorities decide constitute “religious extremism.” According to a recent report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Chinese companies have used Uighur detainees as forced labor in factories — including some in the supply chains of major American brands such as Apple, Nike, and Amazon.
In addition, Chinese authorities have raided or closed hundreds of house churches, mosques, and temples across the country. In February, the government enacted a new regulation requiring religious groups to accept and teach the principles of the Communist Party. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has created a sweeping surveillance state, with cameras and facial recognition systems, to track Uighurs and Tibetan Buddhists. According to experts, this is the first known example of a government intentionally using artificial intelligence for racial profiling.
Human rights activists and members of Congress have already called on the IOC to either demand China respect human rights as a condition of hosting the games or to move the 2022 Winter Olympics to another location. As members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, we join these calls. Proceeding with the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing would send the wrong signal and legitimize the Chinese government’s unconscionable religious freedom violations.
The IOC’s recent decision to postpone the 2020 Olympics shows that the committee can respond creatively and swiftly in response to unprecedented public health threats. Unfortunately, the IOC has thus far not demonstrated similar decisiveness with regard to religious freedom threats. IOC officials have even suggested that concerns about human rights violations in Xinjiang fall outside the committee’s mandate, despite provisions in recent contracts requiring host governments to respect international human rights standards.
We hope the IOC can find a creative solution to the 2022 Games, such as allowing Japan to host both the 2021 and 2022 Olympic Games. If it does not, and if the Chinese government’s persecution of religious minorities continues, we call upon the U.S. government to announce that it will not send any officials to attend the games in Beijing.
While we cannot and should not deny our athletes a chance to compete, the U.S. government must also stand up for America’s values. Just as we collectively decided that our athletes should not be forced to choose between their sport and their health in 2020, so, too, should they not be forced to choose between their sport and their conscience.