With the 2022 Winter Olympics now underway, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is back in Beijing.
Last time, in 2008, the city witnessed a massive sweep of “undesirables” off the streets as part of its pre-Olympics “clean-up.” This year, the IOC victoriously returns to the capital, with promises of embroidered costumes and hand-knitted cashmere bouquets as Omicron cases flare up in local neighborhoods. Meanwhile, across the country, Uyghurs face genocide and the true status of tennis star Peng Shuai remains unknown.
Much of the world has caught on to the committee’s troubling record. In recent years, the organization has been closely associated with the exploitation of migrant workers, sexual assault scandals, serious environmental damage, and disastrous economic consequences for host city locals.
Yet, the IOC seems immune to criticism and sanction from watchdogs, governments and athletes alike. Untouchable and intractable, the extraordinarily profitable non-profit continues to snub activist groups and flout the human rights ideals of its own Olympic Charter whenever these ideals become inconvenient. Deep pockets, a well-connected membership, and complete freedom from government oversight provide effective buffers against most financial and political pressures.
The UN, though, could succeed where others have failed in holding the IOC accountable.
A UNIQUE BUT UNEVEN RELATIONSHIP
The UN has a unique relationship with the IOC, and could leverage it to demand that the IOC demonstrate a greater commitment to human rights principles in both its words and its actions.
Since 2009, the UN General Assembly has granted the organization permanent observer status — a privileged designation that allows IOC leadership to attend and speak at UN General Assembly meetings. Only a select few nongovernmental entities share the title, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, which are leading humanitarian and charity organizations. Others promote democratic governance, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and help regulate international business, such as the International Chamber of Commerce.
The IOC’s special status at the UN seems even more hypocritical when juxtaposed against a documented history of ideological differences between the two organizations.
As a private, billion-dollar sports business, the IOC stands firmly apart from the UN’s other permanent observers. Its relationship to the UN dates back to at least the 1970s, when the two organizations were vying for control over the future of international sport. The IOC quickly realized that working with instead of against the UN would prove to be the better long-term strategy, and thus ensued a series of partnerships. In 1985, the IOC worked on the UN project International Youth Year, an initiative meant to celebrate the valuable contribution that youth can make in all sectors of society. In 1993, the organization created the International Development and Cooperation Department to manage its relationships with international organizations, especially those affiliated with the UN such as UNICEF and the WHO. This was also the year the UN adopted the IOC’s Olympic Truce for the first time. The resolution was meant to harken back to the Ancient Greek tradition of all participating states agreeing to suspend any ongoing conflicts throughout the duration of the Games.
At the turn of the new millennium, the idea of leveraging sports to promote global development was gaining in popularity. The UN’s Millennium Declaration of 2000 stated as its tenth principle: “to support the International Olympic Committee in its efforts to promote peace and human understanding through sport and the Olympic Ideal.” The IOC capitalized on this mounting international enthusiasm — as well as on its members’ personal ties to foreign ministers and parliamentarians — to more formally codify its partnership with the UN and obtain observer status a few years later.
There are numerous benefits for the IOC in having a positive relationship with the UN. Indeed, a large part of the IOC’s appeal to both host governments and corporate sponsors depends on the success of its public image as a moral global leader — the righteous “guardian” of a movement that is building “a better world through sport.” The IOC’s formal affiliation with the UN — the leader of world peace and human rights, at least in theory — is a key part of this charade, with the partnership proudly displayed front and center on the organization’s official website. According to Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University who studies the Olympics whom I interviewed on the phone on Jan. 7, 2022, explained that this partnership enables the IOC’s robust public relations department to rebuff or ignore critiques of corruption and gloss over the darker sides of the Olympic Games.
What the UN gains from this relationship is less obvious. Despite years of celebrating the “natural link” between the ethics of both organizations, the IOC routinely betrays the UN’s stated principles of democracy and human rights, especially in relation to social equality and sustainable development through international sports.
To the UN, sport is a key element in the empowerment of women and young people, as well as in the promotion of health, education, and social inclusion objectives. In theory, the IOC sees the role of sport on the world stage in a similar light: Sport is a “universal language” that brings people together across boundaries and cultures. In practice, though, the IOC is more concerned with maintaining its hegemony vis-a-vis the governance of international sport than with uplifting underserved peoples. According to Helen Lenskyj, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto with whom I spoke with on Jan. 6, 2022, said that “the IOC is exploiting the UN, and the UN isn’t noticing the extent to which that’s happening.”
Certainly, it would be a stretch to claim the UN is all about human rights. China and Russia, after all, are both permanent voting members of the UN Security Council, the UN’s most powerful decision-making body. But if not from all its member states, the UN General Assembly should at the very least mandate higher standards from those groups on which it bestows special privileges — namely, its nongovernmental permanent observers like the IOC. This is in keeping with the UN General Assembly’s mandate to safeguard human rights and make recommendations that help promote the realization of these rights around the world.
THE IOC’S SELECTIVE ACTIVISM
Concretely, the IOC’s speaking role at the General Assembly has most visibly revolved around advocating for the passage of the Olympic Truce prior to every Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the Olympic Truce means virtually nothing in the modern context. It did not hold back Russian troops from invading South Ossetia, Georgia during the 2008 Beijing Olympics on the very first day of the Games. In 2014, Russia once again broke the Truce by reclaiming Crimea while hosting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. As the world prepares for this year’s Games, Russia is on the verge of another invasion, and China continues its brutal repression of Muslim minorities. The Olympic ideals of peace and tolerance are sorely missing from the picture.
The IOC’s special status at the UN seems even more hypocritical when juxtaposed against a documented history of ideological differences between the two organizations. The IOC has routinely cited its principle of political neutrality — that the Olympic Games stand “above and beyond any and all political differences” — to shirk its responsibility to protect racial and gender parity in sports. For example, following the UN General Assembly’s introduction of the Resolution Against Apartheid in Sport in 1977, the president of the IOC warned the UN Secretary-General that mixing politics with sports “would have the most dreadful consequences,” even when it came to ensuring the inclusion of Black athletes on the South African Olympic Team.
Today, despite the IOC’s pledge to women and girls around the world to protect them from “all forms of harassment,” and the fanfare around its recent Gender Equality Review Project, the organization has yet to call on China to conduct an independent investigation into Shuai’s allegations of sexual harassment. Thankfully, the UN has already done so.
HOLDING THE IOC ACCOUNTABLE
The UN should not allow the IOC to continue to pick and choose when to champion basic human rights. A continuation of the sports organization’s privileged status at the General Assembly should be contingent on the IOC taking several steps to show that it does, in fact, contribute to building a better world.
Most immediately, the organization’s president should demand China conduct an investigation into Shuai’s allegations and whereabouts. The IOC can also work with its corporate sponsors to prepare Olympic advertisements pointedly aimed at celebrating women’s athleticism and empowerment around the world — an unmistakable and powerful show of support for Shuai. The IOC must also acknowledge the Chinese Communist Party’s exploitation of the Uyghurs and fully cooperate with activist groups to ensure official Olympic Games suppliers fully disentangle themselves from potential labor abuses in the Xinjiang province. Going forward, the sports organization should not partner with authoritarian governments that habitually engage in human rights abuses.
Although the Beijing 2022 Host City Contract makes no mention of human rights, those for Paris 2024, Milano Cortina 2026, and Los Angeles 2028 explicitly state a new requirement in an attempt to appease human rights activists: These cities have an obligation to ensure “any violation of human rights is remedied in a manner consistent with international agreements.” This discrepancy is unacceptable. All countries hosting the Olympic Games — and not simply Western democracies — should be required to adhere to the UN’s human rights standards.
Last month, a coalition of over 250 global civil society groups representing persecuted minorities in China wrote an open letter to the UN Secretary-General urging him not to attend the Beijing Games. If the IOC continues to disregard basic human rights, the UN General Assembly should revoke the organization’s observer status. After all, when the IOC, a UN permanent observer, stays silent in the face of modern-day slavery, it’s the UN’s global reputation that is at stake too.
Cybele Greenberg is an editorial fellow at The New York Times and a freelance opinion writer on national security and foreign affairs issues.