Games host China must not threaten freedom of athletes / Role of media more important than ever

The Beijing Winter Olympics kicks off amid global instability following a confrontation between the United States and China and the novel coronavirus pandemic. It is hoped that this will be an international event where athletes will be able to safely demonstrate their abilities and deliver excitement to the world.

This will be the fourth Winter Olympics held in Asia, following Sapporo in 1972, Nagano in 1998 and Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018. It is the second time Beijing has hosted the Olympics, following the 2008 Summer Games, and the first time the same city has hosted both the Summer and Winter Games.

This time, about 2,900 athletes from about 90 countries and regions will participate in 109 events across seven sports, the most in the history of the Winter Olympics.

Maintain momentum

Japanese athletes are aiming to win more medals than the 13 they won at Pyeongchang. With 124 athletes competing, it is the largest team Japan has sent to a Winter Olympics held overseas.

Many athletes are expected to follow up on the success they achieved at the Pyeongchang Games, including figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who is targeting his third consecutive Olympic title with an unprecedented quadruple axel jump, and speed skater Miho Takagi, who plans to compete in five women’s events.

Gold medals are also expected in such events as ski jumping, moguls in freestyle skiing and snowboard.

Athletes have been at the mercy of the coronavirus pandemic. International tournaments and warm-up games have been canceled one after another due to the spread of the omicron variant. Athletes performing on the big stage after overcoming difficulties will surely cheer people up.

Japanese athletes won a record number of medals at the Tokyo Summer Olympics last year, and the memories are still fresh in the minds of the public. Many athletes bound for Beijing would have been inspired by the success of Japanese athletes at the Tokyo Games. It is hoped that the momentum from Tokyo will continue in Beijing.

Beijing has taken stricter measures against the infectious disease than Tokyo, including a de facto vaccination requirement. Ticket sales to the general public have also been scrapped.

Freedom of expression

While it is desirable for the Games to be held safely with all possible measures, caution should be exercised against excessive regulations.

A smartphone app used by athletes and members of the press to report their temperature results has been found to pose a risk of personal information leakage. Freedom must not be jeopardized in the name of coronavirus control measures.

In addition to the Chinese government’s strong control over every corner of the Games, there are also restrictions that prevent ordinary spectators from entering competition venues. Because of this, the role of the media will be even more important.

All media must fulfill their duty to provide broad coverage of the Games, with guarantees regarding freedom of the press and freedom of expression. China must not be allowed to censor or restrict media reports.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) now allows athletes to express their opinions on political, religious and racial issues provided they do not target specific countries or individuals.

In China, however, criticism of the regime is the target of a crackdown. A senior official of China’s Olympic organizing committee said any actions that are against Chinese laws and regulations are subject to certain punishment, referring to the possibility of expelling athletes from the Games. Isn’t this a threat to prevent athletes from speaking out?

The IOC’s attitude toward China will also be called into question.

In the case of the Chinese female professional tennis player who disappeared after making an accusation about a senior Communist Party official, IOC President Thomas Bach was criticized for being pro-China. He said the player’s safety had been confirmed without explaining the details. The problem must not be brushed under the rug.

The IOC is under pressure to review the bloatedness of the event itself, and improve the management of the Olympics, which are overly focused on TV networks. Partly due to global warming, the number of candidate sites for the Winter Olympics is expected to dwindle in the future. It should consider how to make the Olympics sustainable.

Inseparable intl politics

Although the Olympics is a sports extravaganza, in some ways it is inseparable from international politics. The issue of whether to send official government delegations to the opening ceremony has underscored the distance between China and other countries.

The United States and some European countries decided not to send delegations mainly due to China’s human rights abuses in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and Japan followed suit. However, Russian President Vladimir Putin was expected to attend the opening ceremony and meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Olympics will surely be a stage to showcase the solidarity between China and Russia.

Xi roused the Chinese people, saying that the success of Beijing 2022 will “enhance our confidence in realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Xi seems to see the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to boost his leadership toward the establishment of a long-term administration at the National Congress of the Communist Party in autumn this year.

Leaders from more than 80 countries, including Japan and the United States, attended the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, because there were expectations that the international community’s involvement would help China become an “open major power” that values human rights and the rule of law.

China’s subsequent disregard for international cooperation and its increasing self-righteousness may have contributed to the gloom surrounding the 2022 Games. China must take the criticism seriously.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 4, 2022.