By Ben Church, CNN
Former Olympic cross-country skier Noah Hoffman says he is “scared” for the safety of athletes who might be contemplating speaking out about human rights issues during Beijing 2022.
Hoffman, who retired from competitive skiing after the PyeongChang Games in 2018, says he is concerned by the human rights record of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the lack of support shown by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Earlier this month, a Beijing 2022 official said athletes who demonstrate behavior that “is against the Olympic spirit, especially against Chinese laws and regulations” will face “certain punishment.”
The IOC has subsequently reiterated that any form of protest must not take place during competition or medal ceremonies, but the Olympic Committee has said athletes are free to express their opinions during press conferences and interviews.
“I’m scared for athletes who are headed there because athletes are going into a really difficult situation with the restrictions on speech in China,” Hoffman tells CNN Sport.
“Athletes have been warned by the organizing committee that if they violate the laws of China, they will be punished but the laws of China, when it comes to speech, are extremely opaque.
“It’s not clear at all what kind of speech might be deemed illegal.”
Hoffman says the handling of the Peng Shuai case shows just how dangerous it could be for athletes who decide to speak out against China.
Last November, Peng was feared to be held incommunicado by the Chinese government after she posted a long narrative on Chinese social media that retired Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of forcing her into sex during a years-long on-off relationship.
Within 30 minutes that post was pulled down, and Chinese censors went to work deleting all traces of her accusation, removing any reference from China’s airwaves.
In fact, when CNN broadcasts the story, China’s sensors change the network broadcast to color bars, forbidding any mention of the story into China.
‘Athletes are being told to get burner phones’
Peng later denied having made the sexual assault claim and the IOC has been forced to defend its handling of the situation after releasing images of video calls with the Chinese tennis star and declaring that she is safe and well.
However, no independent verification of her well-being has been confirmed.
“The IOC treated it as something to basically be swept under the rug. What a sad, sad state of affairs,” said CNN Sports analyst Christine Brennan.
“And the IOC will be remembered for this for a long, long time,” she said.
Images of Peng attending a ski competition and appearing with basketball legend Yao Ming at a ski competition in Shanghai have also been released.
Human rights activists have since said the IOC were putting Peng at “greater risk” and that the video calls were staged.
The Chinese government has not acknowledged the sexual assault allegations. But its Foreign Ministry said it hoped the “malicious speculation” about her would stop.
High-profile sporting figures, including NBA star Enes Kanter Freedom, have also criticized China’s treatment of the Uyghur community, Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The US state department has said that it believes China is committing genocide on its Uyghur population. It says about two million people are being held in a network of internment camps, and are subjected to torture, sterilization and food deprivation.
China denies any human rights abuses. It has insisted that its reeducation camps are necessary for preventing religious extremism and terrorism in the area.
“The IOC has proven that they’re much more interested in appeasing the Chinese authorities than they are in protecting athletes,” Hoffman added.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen the IOC work with the CCP to cover up the Peng Shuai story and to ignore her allegations of sexual assault rather than working to protect her.”
Hoffman also lashed out at China after being warned of a lack of privacy.
The national Olympic committees for several western nations have warned athletes to leave personal phones and devices home, and to use temporary phones due to security and surveillance risks.
“So, I’m scared for athletes heading to Beijing,” said Hoffman. “Athletes are being told to get burner phones and rental computers because they’re not going to have any digital privacy in Beijing.”
China has repeatedly condemned any attempts to politicize sports, saying a diplomatic boycott by the US and others is based on “ideological bias” and “lies and rumors” and an attempt to disrupt the Games.
‘It’s just not worth the risk’
While Hoffman says he’s always been outspoken, he admits to having avoided controversial topics during his athletic career.
The 32-year-old, who recently worked on an initiative with the Purple Project to raise money and awareness for domestic abuse shelters, wants other athletes to use their platforms to speak up on topics that mean the most to them.
However, he is advising athletes heading to Beijing 2022 to wait until they are home before speaking out.
“First of all, I think athletes should always be allowed to speak out. I think they’re human beings first and like every human being, they have the right to express their opinion,” he adds.
“I don’t believe that sport administrators have the right to limit athletes’ expression.
“But once the athletes are in China, it’s just not worth the risk for athletes to come in and make a political statement.
“I hope that no athlete is put in a situation like Peng Shuai is in now.”
Hoffman now works with Global Athlete, a movement which looks to give athletes a unified voice to make their own decisions.
The hope is to level out the “power imbalance” between athletes and sport administrations.
In particular, Hoffman wants to see sweeping changes to the IOC and has called on athletes, as well as political bodies, to ensure the organization is held accountable for its actions — notably on the issues of human rights.
“The Olympic Movement doesn’t exist without athletes, and that kind of leverage is critical when you’re trying to change an organization as entrenched as the IOC,” he says.
“The IOC really operates like an authoritarian organization. At this point, they’re not fully accountable to any one government, to any one sponsor or financial supporter. They’re certainly not responsible to athletes.
“[The IOC] use athletes to legitimize what they do, as opposed to actually listening to athletes, to negotiating with athletes, to being responsive to the needs of athletes.”
The IOC has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment regarding Hoffman’s comment but previously told CNN: “Olympic Games are the only event that brings the entire world together in peaceful competition.”
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues.
“At all times, the IOC recognizes and upholds human rights as enshrined in both the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter and in its Code of Ethics.
“We are responsible for ensuring the respect of the Olympic Charter with regard to the Olympic Games and take this responsibility very seriously.
“All interested parties have to provide assurances that the principles of the Olympic Charter will be respected in the context of the Games.”
The IOC also created the Athletes’ Commission which it says serves as a link between the athletes and the organization.
The Beijing Winter Olympics are set to start on February 4.
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