Tomorrow, the International Olympic Committee will announce which of two countries with abominable human rights records, Kazakhstan or China, will be the host of the 2022 Winter Olympics.
This is perhaps ironic, given that Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter—amended with much fanfare last December—reads:
The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Needless to say, the choice, at least on human-rights grounds, is between the lesser of two evils. It is also the result of an unfortunate set of circumstances, after four countries—Norway, Ukraine, Poland, and Sweden—each withdrew from consideration, facing a long list of IOC demands and soaring costs.
Until Norway withdrew, Oslo was the odds-on favorite to win. Now, the IOC finds itself in the unenviable position of awarding yet another Olympics to a human-rights violator.
How does China—not only the world’s largest occupier of a foreign nation, but the country which cracked down on said nation in unspeakable ways the last time it hosted the Olympics, just seven years ago—measure up to the Olympic Charter’s utopian language? Badly. Its regime discriminates against Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists, and has just launched a massive new campaign of repression against both.
Of course, China’s regime tolerates no political dissent anywhere, routinely censoring, banning, and imprisoning those who defy it, including artists, bloggers, student activists, and even insufficiently obsequious corporations.
Kazakhstan fares better, but not by much. A Russian-style anti-gay bill was recently dropped by the country’s constitutional council, after concerns that it might hurt Almaty’s Olympic bid. But as a report issued last week by Human Rights Watch makes clear, LGBT people in Kazakhstan face horrifying violence every day, with no protection from the government.
And that’s just the gays. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has led Kazakhstan since 1989, most recently winning re-election last April with 98 percent of the vote, in an election widely understood to be a sham. Is Nazarbayev really that popular? Or is it possible that some Kazakhs may not be able to enjoy their rights and freedoms if they express a contrary political opinion?
Hint: Torture is still widely used in detention centers, and political prisoners abound.
Unsurprisingly, human-rights groups have harshly criticized the two finalists, demanding that the IOC hold whichever country wins to its own strict standards.
Don’t bet on it. The IOC faced intense pressure surrounding last year’s Olympics in Sochi, held not long after Russia’s shocking crackdown on gays (which is still ongoing). But they didn’t budge. Same thing with the 2008 games held in Beijing. The entire nation/autonomous region of Tibet was under lockdown, but all the spectacle went on as planned.
How is this even possible? Because the IOC has taken a rather narrow reading of the Olympic Charter. While patting itself on the back for recently expanding the Charter’s human-rights guarantees—including sexual orientation explicitly, and beefing up the overall language—it has read those guarantees only as applying to athletes competing in the games.
Here’s what the IOC said to a group of LGBT athletes calling attention to the anti-gay climate in Kazakhstan:
It is our responsibility to make sure the Olympic Charter is fully respected for ALL participants of the Olympic Games. As part of Olympic Agenda 2020 we recently changed our Fundamental Principle 6 of the Charter to include an explicit bar on any form of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This clause is included in the Host City Contract which any city staging the Games must sign.
Those are nice words, and nice all-caps, but notice that it limits application of the Charter to “participants of the Olympic Games.”
In other words, as long as the gay bobsledders can bobsled, it doesn’t matter that monks are setting themselves on fire in Tibet.
That was the script followed in both Beijing in 2008 and Sochi in 2014. Athletes and other participants were basically unmolested (Johnny Weir’s exploits notwithstanding). And, in Russia at least, things were fairly quiet while the Olympic lights were on—although a few LGBT activists were arrested. Afterward, they returned to Kafkaesque horror.
Interestingly, the IOC has recently said that it will take a more expansive view of the Charter when it comes to labor—beginning in 2024. According to its new language, host countries will have to promise that “development projects necessary for the organization of the Games comply with… international agreements and protocols… with regard to planning, construction, protection of the environment, health, safety, and labour laws.”
That is a huge step forward, and is widely seen as a rebuke to Russia and China for their widespread violations in this area.
So maybe the IOC is squeezing in its human-rights abusers while it still can.
Personally, I think Kazakhstan is clearly the lesser of the two evils. With a population of only 16 million, it doesn’t have as many people to oppress—China represses more Mongolians, Tibetans, and Uighurs than Kazakhstan has people. Plus, President Nazarbayev has created one of the most bizarre, dystopian capital cities on the planet, Astana, which looks like Dubai crossed with a Mormon Temple.
Plus, you know, Borat.
Sure, Kazakhstan’s new criminal code fails to live up to international understandings of freedom of speech, assembly, or religion. OK, the regime has violently suppressed labor strikes, imprisoned opposition leaders, and shut down independent media. And yes, 81 percent of Kazakhs say that gay people “face disapproval and disrespect from those in the general population.”
But unlike China, Kazakhstan still gives a damn what the West thinks. It has positioned itself as an up-and-coming nation—roughly the size of Western Europe and rich with oil money. It has flirted with the American Right-fueled anti-gay ideology that has swept Russia’s conservative government, but it hasn’t made the leap just yet, and might not do so if the Olympics come to Almaty.
Of course, people said the same thing about China pre-2008: that with the glare of the international spotlight, China would have to shape up. In fact, the opposite turned out to be the case. China clamped down hard, squashing any glimmer of dissent before it could be seen by anyone.
But that’s China. Kazakhstan isn’t in the same league either economically or in terms of human-rights abuses. It’s not a superpower, and is thus somewhat more amenable to world opinion.
Most importantly, people will die if China gets the Olympics. That’s what happened last time, as part of the country’s crackdown, and the same thing will happen in 2022. It’s a brutal calculation, but the harsh reality is that between Kazakhstan and China, an Olympics in Almaty will probably lead to less death.
Which, in the case of the IOC, counts as progress.