THE BIG PICTURE: IOC’s Bach on the diplomatic boycott of Beijing ‘22: “The Games are about and for the athletes”

IOC President Thomas Bach (GER)

The diplomatic boycott of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games was greeted with unusual optimism by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (GER) at an online news conference on Wednesday:

“The IOC has always been concerned with the participation of the athletes in the Olympic Games. Therefore, we welcome the support for their Olympic team, all these governments have been emphasizing. This is giving the athletes certainty and this is what the IOC is about and this line is also in full accordance with the approval by consensus all the 193 U.N. member states, which includes all these governments, with their support for the Olympic Truce resolution, which in fact is requesting the U.N. member states to cooperate with the IOC and the [International Paralympic Committee] with regard to a successful organization of the Games.

“The presence of government officials is a purely political decision for each government, and also for this political decision, the principle of the political neutrality of the IOC applies.”

Beginning with the U.S. announcement on Monday that it would not be sending officials to the Games, Australia, Great Britain and Canada have followed and will certainly not be the last. But Bach was clear that what matters most is the participation of athletes:

“The integrity of the Games are about the integrity of the sports competitions. Therefore, we have our full focus on the athletes. The Games are about and for the athletes.

“And therefore you will hear the same comment from us for every political decision from any government. We have been concerned with the athletes. We welcome that they can participate, that they are supported by their national governments and the rest is politics and there, our political neutrality, the principle is applied.”

Bach was pushed hard on the related question of whether saying nothing about China and its human-rights abuses is, in fact, an indirect expression of support. On this, he pushed back hard:

“By not commenting on political issues, you are not taking a side, neither the one nor the other. This is the mission of the IOC, otherwise we could not manage to accomplish the mission of the Games to being, to unite the world. If we would start to take political sides on one way or the other, we would never get the 206 National Olympic Committees to the Olympic Games.

“This would be the politicalization of the Olympic Games, and this, if I would think it further, could be the end of the Olympic Games, as it was the end of the ancient Olympic Games, when politics got involved after 1,000 years of Olympic Games, and then the Roman Emperor [Theodosius] intervened for political reasons that it was the end of the Games.

“The ancient Greeks already knew that the Games, to exist, needs this political neutrality and this has not changed , it has even become more important in this confrontational world we are living in and this divisive world where the tensions are rising high, and if the Games would even contribute to rising tensions, this would be absolutely contrary to our mission.”

During a Tuesday news conference following the first of three days of IOC Executive Board meetings, Beijing 2022 Coordination Commission Chair Juan Antonio Samaranch, Jr. (ESP) emphasized that the organizing committee is “completely on track” and that:

“The Games, to be successful, have to be safe. It will be extremely safe. The closed-loop management system will be extremely safe. If the Covid situation changes, we will adapt and all the protocols for whatever happens are ready. Above everything, these Games, from a Covid perspective, will be extremely safe.”

A second edition of the Beijing 2022 “playbook,” dedicated to anti-Covid procedures, is expected to be issued in a few days.

The question of spectators at the Beijing Games is still up in the air. On Tuesday, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director Christophe Dubi (SUI) explained:

“Everything is planned according to the presence of spectators. Now, when it would be made I would expect in the next few weeks because past this time will be physically impossible to get the campaign up and running. …

“Even though we would go another few days before the decision is made, when it is made and it is a positive one, we know that the interest for the Games is absolutely outstanding.”

Bach spent much of Wednesday’s news conference talking about the IOC’s humanitarian efforts, including a new program in Afghanistan:

“Through our efforts, more than 300 members of the Olympic community of Afghanistan received humanitarian visas and could therefore already be evacuated from Afghanistan. This is, of course, an ongoing effort for many members of this community remaining in Afghanistan.

“Today, I can inform you that as a result of this quiet diplomacy, the Taliban accept and support humanitarian aid delivered by the IOC to members of the Olympic community who are still living in Afghanistan. According to our first evaluation, up to 2,000 people are concerned: that includes members of the Paralympic community, of course, but also from Olympic and non-Olympic sports. For this, the IOC Executive Board has today approved a humanitarian aid package of up to $560,000.

“This humanitarian aid package can only be implemented because of our excellent partnership we’re enjoying with [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] and with U.N. High Commissioner Filippo Grandi [ITA]. As a result of these talks with Commissioner Grandi, UNHCR will help us distributing this support to the members of the Olympic and Paralympic community. AS UNHCR, they are one of the few organizations that can still operate in Afghanistan and they will also ensure the governance of the distribution on the ground.

“After these consultations with the Taliban, all of this will be coordinated with the NOC and its elected officebearers in order to define the final list of beneficiaries from the Olympic and Paralympic community from Olympic and non-Olympic sports. The amount per person for this, what the UNHCR is calling ‘winterization program,’ is 265 U.S. dollars. This means that also in this respect, this humanitarian aid program is fully aligned with the ‘winterization’ program of UNHCR in Afghanistan.”

Bach was pressed on the continuing contacts with Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, whose two video calls with the IOC have been rare contacts with the world beyond China after making sexual abuse allegations against a former Chinese Vice Premier. He explained:

“[W]e have achieved, I think so far, with these talks, what we could reasonably be expected to achieve. The most important human right is physical integrity, and this physical integrity we have been ensuring during these calls and we will continue the calls and will continue the support. And this is the most important: it’s about an individual, it’s about an athlete. You have to take care of this human being, you have to approach a human being, you have to respect this human being.

“And in such a fragile situation Peng Shuai is in, you have to make all the efforts to build trust, to engage in a human relationship. And this, as you can appreciate, is not easy in a video call, but this is why we said we want to keep in touch, we want to have other calls, we want to keep supporting her and in this way being assured about her physical integrity as much as we can.”

Translation: By being a connection for Peng outside of China, the IOC has helped to assure people that she is, in fact, still alive and able to communicate, in a limited way, with the world. Bach has invited her to meet with the IOC when it comes to Beijing for the Winter Games, a further indication of support for her.

The IOC will meet on Thursday as well; a short presentation was made on Wednesday concerning the broadcast and digital audience for the Tokyo 2020 Games, with a total reach of 3.05 billion people around the world.

Tomorrow’s presentations are slated to include information on the continuing review of boxing and weightlifting on the Olympic program for 2024.

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