How Americans are viewing the Winter Olympics in Beijing

The US team walking in during the opening ceremony for the Beijing Winter Olympics, on Feb 4, 2022. Media outlets in the US have been running critical pieces on China's hosting of the Games. PHOTO: NYTIMES
Protesters demonstrating against the Beijing Winter Olympics in Los Angeles on Feb 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - NBC sports anchor Mike Tirico and his co-host Savannah Guthrie opened their network's coverage of the Winter Games in Beijing on Feb 3 by addressing China's controversial human rights record head-on.

Noting the United States' diplomatic boycott of the Games, Mr Tirico acknowledged "the US government's declaration that the Chinese Communist Party is guilty of committing genocide on the Uighur Muslim population in the western Xinjiang region".

"That's a charge that China denies," said Mr Tirico, who later hosted an interview of China experts who discussed the state's alleged repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

NBC, which has the American broadcasting rights to the Winter Games, also featured a segment on human rights abuses in China.

The NBC broadcast reflected how Americans have perceived the Winter Games in Beijing: by focusing strongly on China's shortcomings, from its human rights record to its use of fake snow and threat of spyware.

The New York Times published a commentary on Tuesday (Feb 8) with the headline: "In the 'Genocide Olympics', Are We All Complicit?", and in a similar vein, CNN ran a commentary last week calling the Games "the most awkward Olympics".

Both pieces flagged accusations of "genocide" and Beijing's holding of Hong Kong political prisoners.

Beijing has denied allegations of abuses in Xinjiang. It has also said that Hong Kong issues are China's internal affairs.

On Wednesday, China said the US "genocide" allegation is a lie of the century, which fully exposes its sinister intention of politicising the Winter Olympics and maliciously smearing China with Xinjiang-related issues, Xinhua news agency reported.

Meanwhile, publications like flagged Beijing's use of artificial snow, questioning how sustainable the practice was, while the conservative magazine National Review ran an op-ed by Republican senator Ben Sasse blasting China's app for Olympic athletes and spectators as a "literal Chinese spyware".

On one hand, said analysts, the US reception of the Winter Games was a reminder that sports is political.

"All of this is a firm reminder that the Olympics are not simply the Olympics - they are a platform for wider social and political dynamics," said Pacific University political scientist Jules Boykoff, a retired soccer player who has represented the US in international competitions.

He noted that similar dynamics were seen around the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when the US protested against Russia's anti-gay policies.

On the other hand, criticisms of China have been amplified by a general wariness in the US towards China, say analysts.

The US' Mac Forehand competing at the Big Air Shougang in Beijing on Feb 9, 2022. US publications have flagged Beijing's use of artificial snow at the Games, questioning the practice's sustainability. PHOTO: AFP

Eurasia Group China analyst Neil Thomas said: "China's poor human rights record, especially in the Xinjiang region, would have produced calls to boycott the Beijing Olympics anyway, but the geopolitical backdrop of US-China strategic competition likely amplified the political support for such calls."

This strategic context was likely one of the reasons why the US government imposed a more formal diplomatic boycott this year, he said, noting that Washington had not done likewise for the 2014 Games in Sochi.

Surveys before the Games showed that Americans hold increasingly negative attitudes towards China.

An Axios-Momentive poll found that seven in 10 survey respondents disapprove of allowing China to host the Olympics, with China's human rights record, handling of the Covid-19 outbreak and surveillance of participants cited among their top concerns.

A poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 46 per cent of Americans approve of their country's diplomatic boycott of the Games, while 22 per cent disapprove.

Mr Thomas said the strong focus on China's authoritarian model also pointed to growing concern in the democratic world about the political influence and strategic intentions of the Chinese government.

He said: "The West increasingly views China as a strategic and ideological competitor that wants to revise the rules, norms, and values of the international order.

"Western governments do not want organisations like the International Olympic Committee to reward an authoritarian government with the opportunity to burnish its legitimacy through hosting major events."

The critical focus of much Western conversation about the Beijing Winter Olympics also highlighted how companies that do business in or with China face a new normal of two-way political risk, said Mr Thomas.

"Growing Western scrutiny of human rights in China pressures firms to oppose problematic Chinese policies, while rising Chinese nationalism pressures firms to ignore or even celebrate these same policies, creating conflicting commercial risks between their Western and Chinese operations."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.