Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Milan-based freelance defence and security reporter who specializes in military affairs and procurement.
Canada’s decision to join the diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics alongside the U.S., U.K. and Australia has raised concerns about the heavy burden this places on competing athletes. However, the greater price was laid upon them when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the decision in 2015 to host the Games in China, amid deep concerns about human rights abuses and athlete safety.
The decision to make Beijing host was made when tensions between the West and China weren’t as high, before the recent crackdowns in Hong Kong and the detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. Nonetheless, more information was coming to light regarding China’s widespread discrimination and repressive policies against minorities including Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongolians. Organizations such as Human Rights Watch were increasingly reporting on the country’s frequent detention and torture of activists and lawyers and the heavy-handed methods employed against pro-democracy protesters.
When international events are hosted in authoritarian states such as China, athletes face the threatening possibility of becoming the primary targets of the country’s security services. Although the IOC claims to have taken into account these worries, and had China sign a host contract agreeing not to engage in surveillance, it isn’t clear if the deal will be respected. After all, we have seen in recent years that the IOC’s price for rules violations isn’t much to fear.
After Russia was exposed for running a state doping program, the country only suffered from a partial ban on participating in the 2018 Olympics, and many of the lifetime bans placed on Russian athletes who partook in doping activities were overturned. Following this, Russia retaliated by hacking into the IOC computers and disclosing confidential documents, yet the country will still compete in Beijing and Russian President Vladimir Putin has even accepted an invitation to attend.
The widely reported spying and surveillance practices that China engages in, ranging from border police secretly installing surveillance apps on tourists’ phones to the suspected espionage campaign carried out against Americans via phone networks, have raised fears about athletes being targeted, tracked or having their data intercepted. The Chinese authorities have long been surveilling their citizens, justifying the measures as essential for national security and social stability, and they now track information such as political associations, status and preferences through an algorithmic surveillance system. Beijing has reportedly targeted tens of thousands of individuals, which qualifies as mass surveillance, primarily for intelligence gathering and collection purposes. More recently, in an attempt to digitize bank notes, the Chinese government has increasingly promoted the use of the digital yuan on smartphones, which may be used not only to track its citizens but also anybody visiting China.
The IOC has been challenged in recent months by the media regarding its choice of host country for the 2022 Winter Games, but much less has been asked about what awaits the athletes upon their arrival. Beijing’s recent warnings that the boycotting countries will “pay the price for their mistaken acts” and that China will take “resolute counter-measures,” have ultimately exposed Canadian, American, British and Australian athletes to greater risk of being subjected to the country’s surveillance practices. The IOC’s response – that it is not a government and unable to dictate a country’s actions – is a shield to hide behind. As the self-proclaimed “guardian” of the Olympics, the members of the IOC are the ones holding actual power over the selection and most importantly approval of who holds the Games. The reality is, the decision to have the Olympics in China has put a greater burden on athletes and compromises their very safety.
While it is now too late to reverse the Games’ location, there are still a number of ways that the IOC could attempt to mitigate the risks. Some of these could include banning the use or at least warning athletes of the risk of the digital yuan, forbidding the collection of athletes’ DNA outside of anti-doping purposes, and most importantly, imposing higher sanctions on those found guilty of violating privacy policies and principles. In the long term, the IOC should also consider creating an international protection law specifically designed to safeguard the personal data and information of athletes, and requiring all participating and host countries to consent to clear, detailed standards of confidentiality and non-disclosure.
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