Regardless of whether the International Olympic Committee selects Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan, Friday at the 128th IOC Congress in Malaysia, one thing is certain: A country with a terrible human rights record will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. An event that aims for global community and inclusiveness will occur in either China or Kazakhstan, where activists are often jailed without cause, LGBT individuals are targets and press freedom is an oxymoron.
Beijing and Almaty were the only prospective hosts left standing after several other cities dropped their bids amid various concerns. As more democratic governments balk at the Olympics’ financial impact, activists have expressed alarm at the IOC’s willingness in recent years to award hosting rights to nations with repressive governments. While Olympic officials have taken steps to hold host cities to acceptable human rights standards, critics say the IOC has been unwilling or unable to enforce its own rules in the past.
“The IOC has a profound problem, and that is that repressive governments get a lot out of the Olympic system. They get to build stadiums and edifices to their own leadership. They get to rub shoulders with world leaders and Olympic leaders,” said Minky Worden, global initiatives director at Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy group. “The trend that should be worrying is that repressive governments are increasingly the only ones seeking these games.”
The once-crowded contest to host the 2022 Winter Olympics disintegrated after several front-running European cities opted not to pursue the honor. Committees in Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden withdrew their candidacy due to the huge costs associated with hosting the event. Krakov, Poland was forced to end their bid after it was rejected in a citywide referendum, while Kviv, Ukraine bowed out amid the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine.
In Norway and Sweden – both democratic nations – officials were unable to convince their citizenry to support the construction of Olympic facilities that tend to become obsolete or fall out of use soon after the event ends. Russia reportedly spent an unprecedented $38 billion, or about 10 percent of its federal budget, on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing were similarly expensive. Officials in autocratic nations like Russia or China were not subject to the public’s wishes, and were thus far more able to foot the bill.
“[China] spent $45 billion on the Summer Olympics. No way they’re getting that money back either, but it’s being done as a signal to the world about how powerful and important China is,” said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “In some ways, when you’re an autocratic government, it’s not your money you’re spending. It’s your people’s money you’re spending and they don’t have any voice in it.”
With no other recourse, the IOC must now choose between China and Kazakhstan, neither of whom has expressed any concern about the event’s cost. Beijing entered Friday’s vote as a clear favorite, largely because China has already shown itself capable of putting on an Olympic Games without logistical issues. Almaty’s proposal boasted a network of existing venues located within an 18-mile radius, as well as a naturally snowy climate conducive to winter sports.
“There was a bit of a weak field for 2022. It certainly wouldn’t be a crisis, [but] it’s unusual,” said Dave Doroghy, who served as director of sponsorship sales for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. “Naturally, the IOC would prefer to have as many cities as possible and a robust field.”
Both nations have long been accused of using authoritarian tactics to suppress dissent among their populations. Criticism of China's hosting abilities extends back nearly a decade to Beijing’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, which, while successful in a logistical sense, was beset by human rights violations and broken promises. Chinese officials promised the IOC it would address Beijing’s air pollution problem before that year’s games began. Seven years later, the air quality in Beijing is still so bad that bid committee officials have vowed to spend an additional $7.6 billion to fix the problem, Reuters reported.
But for critics, China’s problems extend far beyond the environmental. Before the 2008 Games, Chinese officials “forcibly evicted thousands to build Olympic sites without due process or adequate compensation” and were guilty of various labor rights violations, according to a damning Human Rights Watch release. China promised the IOC it would uphold press freedom and allow protests during the Games, but detained would-be demonstrators and openly restricted domestic media, the New York Times reported. Activists also point out that Chinese regulators strictly censor the country’s Internet.
Evidence suggests China’s human rights record has actually worsened since the 2008 Summer Olympics. Some 1,800 human rights activists have been “arbitrarily detained” since China’s President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013, including more than 260 people since June 2015, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders activist group told the Guardian.
Kazakhstan’s human rights record isn’t much better. Though ostensibly a democracy, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayez has been in power since 1989. The Kazakh government has been accused of imposing severe limits on press freedom by shutting down independent outlets and arresting outspoken journalists. Labor activists and protestors are purportedly targeted for arrest and, at times, violence.
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Human Rights Watch has been particularly critical of Kazakhstan’s record on LGBT issues, which were also a source of major concern before Russia’s bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Earlier this year, Kazakhstan’s parliament passed a law similar to a Russian measure that made it illegal for LGBT individuals to spread what it called “gay propaganda.” Though Kazakhstan’s version of the law was eventually ruled unconstitutional, the activist group said it indicated the country’s unacceptable outlook toward the LGBT community.
The IOC is well-aware of the critical backlash ahead of this year’s vote and has taken steps to allay concerns.
“The evaluation commission raised these issues with the governments and local authorities and with both bid teams and sought and received assurances that the principles of the Olympic Charter and the Host City Contract will be respected in the context of the games. This includes assurances on non-discrimination, as well as Internet access, media freedom, labor rights and the right to demonstrate during the games,” IOC President Thomas Bach wrote in an op-ed published by the Toronto Star.
But for watchdog groups, the “assurances” the IOC says it has received from these heavily-criticized regimes carry little worth. Autocratic governments have repeatedly promised to meet certain standards while hosting international sporting events, only to break their vows when they became less than convenient. Officials in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the site of the 2016 Summer Olympics, promised to clean up toxic bodies of water that would be used during next year’s events. But a independent analysis this month by the Associated Press found the waterways were still rife with “dangerously high level of viruses and bacteria.”
The IOC isn’t the only organization guilty of awarding major sporting events to questionable regimes. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, gave hosting rights for the 2014, 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Brazil, Russia and Qatar, respectively. All three nations were accused of human rights violations ranging from forced evictions to fatal mistreatment of laborers. Despite these purported atrocities, autocratic governments are able to benefit from the international exposure that comes with hosting the Olympics or the World Cup.
“It bolsters regimes. We’ve giving legitimacy to tyrants, thugs, dictators, as well as perpetrating human rights violations,” said David Michael Crane, a professor of practice at Syracuse University in New York and the United Nations-appointed former chief prosecutor of a tribunal that tried war criminals in Sierra Leone. “If I’m a dictator and I can host an Olympics, that’s a positive. It’s almost like an international recognition that my regime has legitimacy.”
Though it claims to be an apolitical organization, the IOC has enacted certain safeguards to ensure no significant human rights violations occur in host cities during the Olympics. Approved in December 2014, the Olympic Agenda 2020 called for prospective hosts to guarantee protections for LGBT individuals, press freedom, labor rights and the environment.
It’s still unclear how the IOC to enforce these new rules, or what punishments, if any, await the host city if they are broken. Human Rights Watch suggested other reforms, such as the implementation of a human rights commission within the IOC and specific restrictions in host city contracts, to ensure bidders remain in line. But with China and Kazakhstan as the only possible host options for the 2022 Winter Olympics, and little in the way of concrete measures to enforce human rights standards, the IOC’s commitment may soon be put to the test.
“Once a decision is made on which human-rights abusing country is going to win the honor of hosting the Olympics, that’s when the work starts for the IOC to have this not be another Olympics that’s tarnished by human rights abuses,” Worden said.