Despite the blisteringly cold setting, the heat has certainly been felt at the 2022 Winter Olympics this week. The games are being held in Beijing, with the Chinese capital making history by becoming the first country to ever host both the Olympics and the Winter Olympics. In true tradition, the games kicked off with a showstopper of an opening ceremony last Friday, but what was meant to be a glorious occasion soon took a turn for the worse.
The news agenda was absolutely stacked with controversy with claims from many outlets about the lack of freedom of speech. But as you’re probably aware, this isn’t anything new. During the lead up to the games, many countries across the globe formed a united front following allegations the Chinese government were responsible for “crimes against humanity, particularly Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.”
China has repeatedly denied these allegations with Jing Quan, the third-ranking diplomat at China’s Washington embassy, objecting to the “genocide” narrative at the briefing and adding that sport should not be politicised.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) was quick to squash claims with its president, Thomas Bach, insisting free speech by athletes is absolutely guaranteed at the Olympics. The IOC has long prohibited political protest by athletes at the Games including on the field of play and during medal ceremonies – such as in the instance of Raven Saunders’ “X” gesture at the Tokyo Olympics.
However, last year, the committee amended its rules to permit participants to express their views on the field before the start of events, in engagements with the press, and on social media. A bold move and one that is a positive step towards avoiding further controversy. Although, political demonstrations continue to be banned on medal podiums.
Following concerns over safety, athletes also appear to be on thin ice (pardon the pun) and have been warned by officials not to speak out about this controversy surrounding the games to keep the peace.
China routinely suppresses the social media accounts and physical movements of dissidents during politically sensitive periods, but how far is too far when the decisions of one country impacts the rest of the world? Prior to the games commencing last Friday, some human rights activists in China had their WeChat messaging app accounts restricted with many posing the question of whether the Olympics should take place in a country which has become a replica of ‘Big Brother’. One activist stated how “extensive surveillance on social media platforms keeps people from engaging in certain types of conversations. I think anyone who is travelling to the country for these Games – journalists, athletes, coaches – need to be aware that this kind of surveillance could actually affect them too.”
The My2022 app, which is dedicated to providing crucial Covid information, is being used by athletes, audience members and media, also offering voice chats and file transfers. However, cybersecurity group Citizen Lab has expressed concern over the app failing to provide encryption on many of the files, leading many to wonder if this app serves an ulterior motive. Anyone attending the event has been warned in what can be described as true MI5 style to bring a burner phone to the games. One report documented in a BBC article concluded “China’s national data security laws are not designed with the Western values of privacy and liberty and do not offer the same level of protection,” the report said.
For now, we will keep a keen eye on the games, a games which is inherently tinged with negativity, and we must remember that not everyone is able to get their views heard online and, ultimately, not everything we hear is the truth.