Two weeks to the Olympics, and China is slaughtering hamsters. There was a COVID outbreak in a Hong Kong pet store, so the order was given to murder a couple thousand hamsters, along with some rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs, and the occasional little white mouse. China has a zero-COVID policy. It will fail, but not before some small mammals feel the darkness closing in.
The Beijing Olympics appears to be every inch the authoritarian Olympics. Every Olympics is a reflection of its host: Vancouver was a wobbly win, Brazil nearly collapsed, Russia was an orgy of artifice and graft, and in 2008 Beijing created designated protest zones and then arrested the protestors who showed up and sent them to prison. Things haven’t gotten better since then.
But we’re going back to Beijing, to a Games already being defined by white-knuckle testing policies, suspicious spyware, athlete intimidation, and IOC complicity. This, too, seems unlikely to improve.
“My advice for athletes who are there, and my hope for athletes who are going there, is to stay silent,” said Noah Hoffman, a cross-country skier who represented the U.S. at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Games, during a Human Rights Watch presentation earlier this week. “There’s no guarantee that they’re going to have support.”
The system is set up perfectly for intimidation. The deputy director of international relations for the Beijing Organizing Committee, Yang Shu, told a news conference earlier this week that “any expression that is in line with the Olympic spirit I’m sure will be protected. Any behaviour or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment.”
Yang didn’t specify what the punishment could be, and was essentially weaponizing the IOC’s existing resistance to athletes speaking their minds; Rule 50 of the IOC forbids “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at Olympic venues, though enforcement of that rule was softened in Tokyo on numerous fronts.
But as The Washington Post noted, Yang specifically mentioned that speech could qualify for punishment, and cited Chinese law. Last year, when asked about the IOC protections and what the Canadian Olympic Committee would tell its athletes regarding speaking out on human rights in Beijing, COC CEO David Shoemaker, who was an NBA executive in China until 2018, mentioned the Hong Kong security law that came into effect two years ago, which criminalizes speech that China deems damaging to its national security, in or out of China.
“Again it’s a complex issue, because we have to fully support an athlete’s right to free expression. Full stop,” Shoemaker says. “And yet, at the same time, it’s very important as we do in preparation for any Games — Sochi is a great example — (to) educate our athletes carefully about what may be the consequences of that free expression in the host country that they’re attending.”
He did assume the IOC would protect athletes, but the IOC also just aided and abetted the silencing of tennis star Peng Shuai. You can see why Human Rights Watch recommends athletes be careful.
“We’ve seen with the Peng Shuai case that the IOC is not willing or capable of protecting athletes,” said Maximilian Klein, a sports policy representative from Germany’s impressive independent athletes’ association. “And the IOC and the Olympic movement have a very sad track record when it comes to protecting athletes.”
China wouldn’t even need to crack down on speech at the Games, since it holds a hammer bigger than yanking accreditations. As part of China’s drive for zero COVID — Omicron was already found in the country, and blamed, rather hilariously, on a package from Toronto — they are using a PCR test cycle threshold value of 40, which is more sensitive than the standard 35. Some CBC employees who travelled to China a week ago, tested positive in what were believed to be the remnants of previous infection, and have been unable to put two negative tests together since. It is worth noting that, of the Canadian Olympic team contingents — athletes, coaches, support staff, all in — approximately 80 of the 620 had tested positive since Dec. 1.
“If you ask me what’s the biggest thing at the moment, it’s just making sure we can get people to Beijing,” says Team Canada’s head doctor, Dr. Mike Wilkinson.
A positive PCR test, or even being deemed a close contact of a positive test, will result in an unspecified quarantine, and there is no meaningful oversight. Per sources, the international medical tribune that oversees testing is made up of 25 doctors, and 20 are Chinese.
As a result, TV rights holders like NBC and the CBC have sharply reduced their Beijing delegations, and will largely broadcast the Games from home; the CBC has yanked anyone with a recent infection. This is on top of the spyware concerns that come with the Games — Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto pointed out that the app attendees have to download to their phones is basically spyware, with the ability to listen to phone calls or gain access to file transfers, and includes a handy censorship keyword list of 2,442 words that include Xinjiang, or Tibet. (The IOC, naturally, defended the app.)
And the worries about being hacked are real: Most media outlets and several delegations are taking blank laptops and burner phones, and some are leaving the laptops in China when they come home; nothing says international peace and co-operation like worrying your AirPods might get hacked. It’s a grim mess, is what it is. The IOC fixed up the bid process after China was awarded the Games in 2015. Sochi’s flamboyant cost overruns scared off would-be bidders, and second place went to Kazakhstan, which has seen gunfire in the streets due to recent civil unrest. After this it’s Paris, Milan, Los Angeles, and Brisbane sometime after that. It will get easier.
First we have to march through Beijing. It probably won’t be as bad as what happened to the hamsters, and the other little mammals. But it is a comprehensive shame, nonetheless.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur