Skip to main content

People walk near the Olympic Tower during an organized media tour in Beijing, on Jan. 22, 2021.TINGSHU WANG/Reuters

Canada’s Olympic organizers will warn athletes to watch what they say in China next year, out of fear of a national security law in Hong Kong that has been used to arrest Beijing’s critics.

“There have been dissidents in Hong Kong who have been taken away and charged for saying things that have been contrary to the Communist Party of the Chinese government’s policies,” said David Shoemaker, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

“So we will talk to our athletes about the implications of what they say and of the topics that they choose to speak about.”

Athletes have the right to speak freely, Mr. Shoemaker said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, in which he expressed opposition to calls for a boycott of the Beijing Olympic Winter Games next February. Such an action is unlikely to affect Chinese policies toward Muslims or its incarceration of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, he said – and, he added, could even make things worse for the two detained Canadians.

By attending the Olympics, athletes can be part of “the most spectacular sporting event in the world that unites and inspires and amplifies diverse voices,” he said. In Beijing, they “can be part of a conversation.”

Canadian Olympic Committee board member rejects calls for boycott of Beijing Olympics

No cheering, no bars, less intimacy to ensure safe Olympics

But before they go, the Canadian Olympic Committee will also spend “a considerable amount of time” counselling Olympians on what “they might consider not commenting on, perhaps, at least until after the Games have taken place,” he said. “Because of the implications that that could have for them under things like the national security law.”

Mr. Shoemaker is the former CEO of the National Basketball Association in China, which became a target for Chinese reprisal after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted to Twitter in October, 2019, a single image that said: “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” His quick deletion of the tweet did not stop Chinese broadcasters from refusing to air NBA games, companies from cancelling NBA sponsorship or vendors from selling league merchandise. Chinese online giant Tencent did not resume streaming Rockets games until this January, following a 15-month blackout.

It was a vivid example of China’s willingness to mix sport and politics.

Since then, human-rights advocates and some parliamentarians have urged the Canadian Olympic Committee do the same, with calls for a boycott of the 2022 Games. Withdrawing would, they say, serve as a loud protest against a Chinese government that has overseen a dramatic erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, the mass incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslim groups in the Xinjiang region, and the detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor in what has widely been seen as an act of political hostage-taking. Wednesday marked Mr. Kovrig’s third birthday behind bars.

But Mr. Shoemaker rejected the idea of a boycott, saying such actions unfairly punish athletes and don’t work.

“I don’t think Canadians want the CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee to be the minister of foreign affairs for a day or two and pretending to be an expert in diplomacy,” Mr. Shoemaker said. A boycott would amount to “a politically inexpensive alternative to real and meaningful diplomacy – because you can call for a boycott and not have to frankly do anything else,” he said.

In China, meanwhile, “I worry, frankly, that not going would be perceived as a grand insult and would worsen the chance of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig being released any time soon.”

Additionally, he said, history suggests Olympic boycotts are ineffective. In 1980, Canada joined the United States and others in refusing to attend the Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But Soviet forces remained in Afghanistan for nearly a decade after those Games.

“I do not see any indication that the boycott had any impact on the Soviet behaviour in Afghanistan or the fall of the USSR,” although it’s possible it contributed to the Soviet decision not to invade Poland, said Serhii Plokhy, a Harvard historian who is author of The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union.

The family of Mr. Kovrig said it sees little value in discussing a Beijing Olympic boycott.

“My interest is in the earliest liberation of Michael,” said his father, Bennett Kovrig. “Any talk about an eventual boycott strikes me as irrelevant and misconceived. I have no reason to believe that such a threat would move China and be in Michael’s interest.”

Olympics “promote peace and unity around the world. And I would want Canadian athletes who work very, very hard to be able to participate in that,” said Vina Nadjibulla, who is married to Mr. Kovrig and has been an advocate for his release, although the two are separated.

In Canada’s Uyghur community, however, some say attending the Beijing Olympics would amount to betraying what the country stands for.

“Athletes represent their country’s values. They are the symbol of pride of their nation,” said Rukiye Turdush, an activist who is president of the East Turkestan Information Center.

“Participating in the Olympics in a country where genocide is ongoing is not something that makes Canadians feel proud and inspired. Instead, it makes us feel shame.”

The U.S. State Department and a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang.

Beijing’s actions in recent years “meet the test fully” for a boycott, said John Higginbotham, a retired Canadian diplomat who has advocated a Beijing boycott. “What more do we need? Public executions of the Michaels?”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct