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Performers rehearse near the Zhangjiakou National Ski Jumping Centre under construction for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Zhangjiakou in northwestern China's Hebei province on Dec. 16, 2020.Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press

One of the Canadian Olympic Committee’s most prominent board members says Canada should resist calls to boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics over allegations of genocide in China or the imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Richard Pound, who was president of the Canadian Olympic Committee in 1980, the last time Canada boycotted an Olympic games, said in an interview that refusing to participate in 2022 would achieve nothing and only hurt Canadian athletes.

He said “probably 70 per cent” of Olympic athletes make it to just one Olympic games.

“Young people gathering in troubled times to compete peacefully in sport -- this is a message worth sending and a channel that is worth keeping open even when the government folks are mad at each other,” Mr. Pound said.

Critics of China’s human rights record in Canada and abroad have urged Western countries to pull their athletes from the 2022 Olympics. They cite China’s crackdown on civil rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong, and its internment camps and forced sterilization for Muslim Uyghurs. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said China’s actions constitute genocide. A Canadian House of Commons committee condemned the treatment of Uyghurs as genocide, and Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to Canada’s Justice Minister and Attorney-General, last fall told the Commons that “it is genocide that appears to be taking place today in China.”

Nathan Law, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent dissidents, last fall urged Canada to organize a boycott of the 2022 Olympics with other liberal democracies to show China its oppression of Hong Kongers and Uyghurs has real consequences.

Mr. Pound said Canada tried a boycott already, when the U.S. led 65 countries to skip the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. He said it was devastating for Canadian athletes -- “we just ripped the guts out of our Olympians” -- and was ineffective.

“They were so furious with what was then the Soviet Union that they were going to teach them a lesson,” Mr. Pound recalled. “And, of course, it didn’t get the Soviets out of Afghanistan at all.”

He noted that at the same time as the boycott, Canadian wheat sales to Russia soared. The Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries and allies in turn boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Mr. Pound said Canadians should understand that Beijing doesn’t own the 2022 Games. “They are not Chinese games. They are the International Olympic Committee’s games and they are being held in China.”

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said if Canada truly believes genocide is taking place, it has to be prepared to match its condemnation with action. United Nations experts have said at least one million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region in camps the Chinese government calls vocational and education training centres. Beijing says it’s trying to stamp out terrorism and extremism.

“I think it’s pretty difficult for democracies to act as if it’s business as usual when there is evidence of a genocide going on in China, amongst other gross human rights violations,” Mr. Chong said. “I don’t see how a country like Canada, and other democracies, can turn a blind eye to that.”

He said Canada must consider a boycott not only for the mistreatment of the Uyghurs, but also for conduct such as breaching an agreement with Britain to maintain civil rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong for 50 years after the 1997 handover of the former British colony.

NDP foreign affairs critic Jack Harris said his party would like Canada to work with allies to get the host country changed.

China, he said, “is not a place we want to see our athletes encouraged to go.” He said the dispute with China is not a political issue but a humanitarian issue.

Mr. Chong said if Canada sends teams to the Beijing Olympics, the athletes should consider wearing a symbol or patch to show solidarity with Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, who have been locked up for more than 785 days by China in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called “retaliation” for the arrest in Canada of a Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Mr. Pound said patches are not a good idea. “That’s attractive, but what if another country thinks it’s nice to wear swastikas?” he said. “We try and keep it as apolitical as possible.”

Canada’s minority Liberal government has distanced itself from the discussion.

Camille Gagné-Raynauld, press secretary for Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault, said in a statement that the decision lies with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, which are independent of the federal government.

Mr. Pound said China could dismiss a Canadian boycott as a dispute over Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, whom it has accused of spying.

Beijing would tell its citizens Canada is angry because the Chinese “have two Canadian criminals in custody -- and that is the way it would be perceived,” he said.

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