Is It OK to Watch the Winter Games? A Former Olympian Weighs In.


By this time next week, the Winter Olympics will be well underway in Beijing. Like the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year, the global gathering of athletes will occur during a global pandemic. But China’s first experience hosting the Winter Games comes when Canada’s relationship with the country is at a low amid an array of troubling human rights issues.

My colleagues Steven Lee Myers, Keith Bradsher and Tariq Panja have provided an extensive and provocative look at how China was selected as the host of the Games despite its limited experience with winter sports. More important, they’ve also looked at the significance of the games for Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader.

[China’s Games: How Xi Jinping Is Staging the Olympics on His Terms]

“China no longer needs to prove its standing on the world stage; instead, it wants to proclaim the sweeping vision of a more prosperous, more confident nation under Mr. Xi, the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong,” they wrote. “Where the government once sought to mollify its critics to make the Games a success, today it defies them.”

Canada is still stinging from China’s jailing of the Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig in retaliation for the arrest in Vancouver of Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese tech executive, at the request of the United States. Last year, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service warned the government that efforts by China to distort news in Chinese-Canadian media outlets “have become normalized.”

Canada is also among the many Western nations that have criticized China’s increasingly authoritarian policies, and, in particular, the repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a largely Muslim region in the northwest.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was joining the United States, Britain, Australia, Lithuania and other countries in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games as “a continuation of us continuing to express our deep concerns about human rights violations.”

Whatever the season, the Olympics are funded by two private sources beyond host governments: commercial sponsorships and television rights, which, in the case of Canada, were bought by the C.B.C., as anyone who has even glimpsed at any of the broadcaster’s channels or websites over the past few months probably knows all too well by now.

As my colleagues Alexandra Stevenson and Steven Lee Myers wrote this week, the large multinational corporations that have spent about $1 billion on sponsoring the Games don’t seem to be moved by the human rights situation in China.

[Read: For Olympic Sponsors, ‘China Is an Exception’]

“While the sponsors have faced protests by human rights activists in several countries, they have largely brushed them aside, choosing instead to keep China, and its emerging class of nationalistic consumers, happy,” my colleagues wrote.

All of this has left me both dreading and anticipating these Olympics. On the plus side, I’ve watched several members of Canada’s cross country ski team grow up in the sport, so I am obviously looking forward to seeing them race in one of the sport’s biggest venues.

But I also feel uneasy about contributing to the audience numbers that sustain the television rights fees that will allow Mr. Xi to highlight his version of China.

This week, I spoke about my dilemma with Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. He is also currently the institution’s ombudsperson.

Professor Kidd, a champion of athletes’ human rights, has studied the 2008 Beijing Games and traveled to China repeatedly.

Like most experts, he found that the 2008 Games, which many had hoped would open the country, instead proved to be a step back for human rights.

“They were very disturbing when it came to the rights of athletes,” he told me. “So many countries told their athletes to shut up or go home. There were new restrictions on what they could wear and what they could say. It gave us, in retrospect, the face of the new, proud authoritarian China.”

That authoritarianism, he said, has since only grown. The pandemic and China’s restrictive public health rules have also given Chinese authorities a pretext to tightly control and monitor all Olympic participants as it also reminds athletes not to use the Games’ vast audience to make political points.

[Read: Security Flaws Seen in China’s Mandatory Olympics App for Athletes]

Leading up to the Games, Professor Kidd said that he’d met with several athletes and sports officials who have agonized about going to Beijing. But he rejects the idea that athletes are staying away.

“If there was a pan-Canadian consensus to cut off China, they would join that,” he said. “But they resent the tremendous pressure being put on them to be the only people to take action when it’s business as usual for everybody else. That does not mean they they’re not upset about what’s happening with the Uyghurs and the Tibetans and so on. The ones that I know are terribly upset. But they don’t have an ability to deal with that.”

His answer about what I and other television viewers should do was less direct.

“That’s a really, really, really hard question,” Professor Kidd said. “I’m a lifelong admirer of the Olympic ideal, and the Games are probably the most meaningful ritual to me in my life and I’m looking forward to seeing them. But on the other hand, I’m very concerned about what the Chinese government is doing. But this is a world event and I will support it because I support the idea, even under these very difficult circumstances, of the sports world getting together. So that’s where I am. It’s not perfect, but that’s where I am.”


  • Stephanie Nolen writes that Canada is among many wealthy nations “aggressively recruiting medical workers from the developing world to replenish a health care work force drastically depleted by the Covid-19 pandemic,” raising “new questions about the ethics of recruitment from countries with weak health systems.”

  • As Canada’s soccer team prepares for its World Cup qualifying match against the United States on Sunday, James Wagner writes that when it comes to talk about soccer supremacy in North and Central America and the Caribbean, “Canada’s sudden emergence from a decades slumber,” has changed “that calculus, and that conversation, in real time.”

  • The eight members of the Canadian men’s curling team have spent the weeks leading up to the Winter Olympics sequestered in a rental home in Vancouver that one of them describes as “a frat house without the booze.” Like athletes around the world, they are trying to sidestep Covid-19 and avoid being shut out of the games, Andrew Keh writes.

  • A truck convoy that left British Columbia earlier this week was approaching Ottawa on Friday as other protesters began trickling into the capital from other regions. The convoy, which raised millions of dollars online, began as a protest against mandatory vaccination for truck drivers returning from the United States, but it has since expanded to include a wide array of grievances and suggestions of possible violence.

  • A researcher at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is a among a team of scientists who have manipulated a frog’s cells to regrow an imperfect but functional limb.


A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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